A Day in the Life of a Census Taker

Pandemic Diary Entry #63

September 23, 2020

More and more stories are poping up in newspapers across the country from the Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle, about chaos inside the Census.

I have written about the mishandling of the overall Census created at the very top.

I have written about how bad it is in San Francisco.

Some time has passed since I wrote those two articles and it hasn’t gotten better. I work under a sympathetic supervisor who is as frustrated as the rest of us, and I have met many census takers in my wanderings that are just terrific. It is somewhere at middle management and above that the failure appears, and the sad thing is, no one seems to care.

The turnover rate is astounding and that is a large part of the problem. But I have never worked anywhere where the Peter Principle was this egregious.

We do have great days, a fellow enumerator, Stephen Lewis, told me of his favorite case: “A Guatemalan immigrant ran up to me on the street, adamant that I enumerate his home. He hadn’t received any census form so I added his and counted five other immigrants including his foster child, also from Guatemala. Between his passable English and my horrible Spanish, we got it done in 30 minutes after which I was definitely fist-pumping down the block”

This story is outstanding because the fear of ICE runs deep in the immigrant community, very rarely will they answer the door, let alone chase us down.

Stephen and I also laughed at the fact that, most likely due to the layback dress code of COVID we have both been greeted at the front door by people sans pants. One of the more touching stories was about a gentleman that opened the door and said that Stephen was the first person he had talked to in three months. As he told me the story I said, “I am crying”, he said he cried when it happened.

My favorite day was what I call Orange Day. That was September 9th, where the sky was so orange and dark that I could not read house numbers at noon.

I knocked on the door of a lovely woman and her one-year-old daughter. We had a great chat about how eerie everything was, how her daughter was confused and wasn’t sure about when to nap, and how she had decided not to get out of her PJs all day because after all, was it night or was it day?

The story may not sound like a big deal, but that day was so incredibly strange and with the AQI in the 500s, forcing everyone to stay inside, it truly felt like the end of the world. This delightful woman was one of the only human beings I saw all day, I really needed that.

Due to COVID, every conversation we have is while wearing a mask. This forces us to work hard to find a way to express our smiles and empathy using only our eyes and body language, a learning experience for sure.

Our completion rates are not good. The opportunity to talk to someone is rarer than one would think. There are locked gates, non-working doorbells, and a general draining of humanity from San Francisco. It is an arduous process to find those that have not answered their census via mail or on-line.

If you have not had an enumerator come to your home, you may not be aware of the questions. They are very basic. There is one thing in the process that annoys me. We are given a script, and at three different times in the script, we ask, in a differently worded way, if they are sure they have counted all the people in their household. While asking the question twice has some validity, a third time is just insulting. I read that some enumerators don’t even ask the question, they just check the box on their phone and move on. The problem is, that sends a ding to your supervisor that you are going too fast and therefore, most likely are not doing your job correctly.

A question I enjoy asking under certain circumstances is regarding heritage. There is a race question on the census, that is followed with a question regarding the background of their designated race. In other words, if you are Indian American, what is your tribal affiliation, or if you are Asian, what is your ethnicity. This question is often the one that gets people talking the most, and it is truly interesting to hear people tell of their heritage.

On the frustrating side of the coin, our caseloads are very erratic. Some days you will receive three hours of work and others six, I have only had an eight hour day once. My neighbor Annabelle is an enumerator and we compare notes regularly. The days I receive 80 she receives none and visa versa, Saturday we think we got the same case list. If my case list is light I can call the hotline for more and I have been told many times, they are on their way. Sometimes they arrive a few hours later and sometimes never at all. So I stand on the street corner wondering, should I go home and call it a day or sit here for the next three hours. One day I received a second batch, just as I had called it quits and walked through my front door, they were clear across town. I walked 12 miles that day. Yes, I wear a Fitbit.

None of us are complaining, most of us feel the good outweighs the inane. People inside and out of the census are aware that this census will be useless, but where it all went wrong is way above my pay grade. Most enumerators and supervisors are retired and come from business backgrounds, we weep with frustration at the incompetence and disorganization. We also pat each other on the back, share success stories, and take pride in what we do, it is our civic duty and we care.

PLEASE, if you have not done so, answer your census, it takes but a few minutes on-line at 2020Census.Gov

My travel blog www.PassportandBaggage.com and my www.ArtandArchitecture-sf.com blog are quiet due to the Pandemic. I need to write, so here I go.