The U.S. Census Bureau has kicked into high gear its recruitment of the small army of temporary workers it needs to conduct the once-every-decade nose count of the American population that’s mandated under the Constitution.
In New Jersey, some 45,000 of 65,000 jobs remain unfilled, even though the bureau is offering wages that in most cases are double the minimum wage. The government wants to have identified the Census 2020 work force by the end of January.
Jamal Briscoe was among the group of potential hires who turned up at Newark’s Public Library for a job fair Tuesday hosted by the city and the census, part of the bureau’s National Recruiting Week. He didn’t know beforehand how much the job paid.
“Twenty-one bucks an hour?” the 18-year-old said. “I’d definitely do that.”
What the census pays its temporary workers varies depending on location. In New Jersey, the rate ranges from $16.50 an hour in mostly rural counties to $21 in Essex, and $22 in Hudson County.
It’s decent money in a state where the minimum wage will hit $11 hourly in 2020. Yet organizers suggest that one of the reasons they only have 20,000 people lined up so far is that New Jersey’s jobless rate is now at 3.1%, an historic low.
“It’s going to be hard when the unemployment rate is so low,” said Jennifer Dublin, an assistant regional manager for the census, who noted the bureau will also be running ads to elicit interest among potential applicants. “So we also offer census employment for people who may be underemployed, or looking for a second or third job, or maybe a soccer mom — someone who doesn’t think that they have a lot of time.”
A backlog in background checks
To qualify, an applicant needs to be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen who can read, write and speak English, although bilingualism is an asset for some jobs. The hours will be flexible and in some cases could involve evenings and weekends, when chances are better of catching people at home.
Training begins in March, with the actual work starting in the middle of that month. Although the formal Census Day is April 1, in most cases the work will last “several weeks,” for the most part wrapping up for the temporary workforce by July, according to the census.
Applicants must also pass a background screening, a process that’s currently backlogged, organizers admit.
“We do have a waiting list of people to get processed, just due to the sheer amount of people that we will select,” Dublin said. “So, yes. But we are working expeditiously to try to get everyone through our system as quickly as possible.”
Getting an accurate census count is critical, officials and advocates say. It determines how much federal funding states receive, and how many congressional representatives and electoral votes they get.
But the mammoth undertaking is fraught with obstacles. The immigrant community remains hard to count — even though the Trump administration lost its bid to put a citizenship question on the census form.
“Very important, especially to the Latino community and the immigrant community,” said Jacqueline Quiles, deputy mayor of Newark. “The question is gone, and hopefully they’ll feel more comfortable to fill out the form.”
Responding to the census does not come naturally to some immigrants, said Rosa Lopez, a community organizer for Make the Road NJ.
“We usually tell people, ‘Do not open the door, if you don’t know who they are,’ because of Immigration and the recent raids that have been going on all over the country. So, people are afraid. They don’t want to open the door,” she said. “But now, it’s a little tricky to tell them: ‘Do not open the door!’ but ‘Open the door for the census taker.’”
New Jersey has $9 million set aside in the state budget to help local governments and community groups ensure a full and accurate count. Much of the effort for census organizers will focus on so-called “Hard to Count” neighborhoods — which statistics show tend to be poorer, and populated by people of color and non-English speakers.
Part of the effort is to recruit census takers from those neighborhoods, and advocates are urging immigrants to apply for census jobs online.
As Briscoe sat among the other prospective applicants at the library in Newark on Tuesday, he said he was on a mission to make sure that all get counted.
“They know me. They respect me. I respect them,” he said, adding that he planned to take the effort wherever he needed to go. “So, that’s how it goes. Barber shops, stores, bodegas — whatever you want to call it.”
The Census Bureau will be holding job fairs across the nation all week, in libraries, town halls, churches and schools. Those interested can also sign up online.