Yep. The US Census Bureau has its own coronavirus problems and (possibly) opportunities

Earlier this week, I engaged in some idle speculation about how the coronavirus epidemic could impact the process of taking the 2020 census. The vast majority of citizens responding to the census won’t be impacted significantly because they are either mailing in their forms or completing them online. But for the people they hire to either go do headcounts in the homeless community or those going door to door interviewing non-respondents, fears of encountering COVID-19 might dissuade them from applying for these jobs.

As it turns out, the US Census Bureau was already pondering the same things and they’re at least trying to head some of these problems off at the pass. But until the full scope of the epidemic is quantified, it’s unclear how much of an impact it will have. (Associated Press)

An analysis by The Associated Press shows how low unemployment has affected the bureau’s ability to attract workers, with urban counties, especially large ones, more likely to hit recruitment goals than rural areas. The bureau has yet to account for how hiring could be affected by novel coronavirus concerns. The virus may dampen workers’ enthusiasm for going door to door, but it could also create a new application pool of workers who have been laid off.

While the bureau has reached its recruiting goal nationally, hiring has varied widely from place to place. States with populations concentrated in large metro areas — Georgia, Illinois, Maryland and Nevada — have overrecruited. Mostly rural states with high numbers of older residents — Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and West Virginia — are well below recruitment goals.

The original issue the Census Bureau was facing was one of those problems that you’re happy to have. With unemployment at record lows a few months ago and up to a million jobs still available, not as many people were willing to sign on for these sorts of temporary positions. But now we’re seeing people being laid off in nearly every state as businesses shut down in the face of the pandemic.

That means there are more people looking for a job that pays better than what they could get from unemployment benefits. Enumerator positions pay upwards of $18 per hour this year which probably won’t see you running out to shop for a yacht, but it’s still significantly better than the maximum unemployment benefits in most states. So in an ironic twist, the pandemic that’s threatening the very people they’re trying to reach may just wind up supplying the workforce that’s required to complete this massive task.

The question that’s yet to be answered is how the Census Bureau will tempt people skittish about the coronavirus to go out and get the job done and how they will keep them (and the public) safe. Keep in mind that all of the enumerator jobs that involve door-to-door visits or public headcounts are pretty much the polar opposite of “social distancing.”

I suppose the local offices could offer the enumerators free surgical masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to take with them out on the streets. (Well… assuming they can actually find any of those products.) But that’s going to drive up the cost of the census significantly when you multiply those costs to cover up to half a million workers. I also find myself wondering what the protocol will be if an enumerator rings a doorbell and the people inside refuse to admit them because they are self-isolating and/or afraid of letting COVID-19 in the door. Sure, that’s technically against the law, but do you really think that the government wants to deal with the optics of armed police dragging people in surgical masks out of their homes?

The only real danger here is an undercount. Some of the states currently being hit hardest by the virus (like New York) are already losing more representation in Congress because residents are fleeing the high-tax states. They really can’t afford to turn in an even lower number. But as with everything else in society, the coronavirus is reaching out and impacting nearly every aspect of our lives. And that includes the 2020 census.