The U.S. Census Bureau is scrambling to recruit and hire tens of thousands of Illinois residents needed to conduct this year’s decennial head count. Those jobs will be vital, particularly in parts of Chicago and other areas where residents have been undercounted in the past.
However, it is in those communities where residents face barriers to getting jobs as enumerators and other field workers to conduct the 2020 census.
The census bureau’s Chicago regional office is looking to recruit more than 80,000 applicants for 30,000 temporary positions in Illinois, most of them as enumerators who will knock on doors and count the residents who don’t respond to the census on their own.
As of last week, the office was at about 75% of its recruiting goal in Illinois, according to spokeswoman Jeanine Beasley.
“Our timelines are very, very strict, and they require us to have enough people in the applicant pool in order to complete the process,” said Marilyn Sanders, director for the census bureau's Chicago region, which covers eight states.
Sanders cited the low national unemployment rate as the top reason why residents have not been applying to census jobs.
However, others said that figure — currently holding steady at 3.7% — doesn’t tell the full story.
“When you dissect [the unemployment rate], by geography, by race, by gender, by age, there's a different story,” said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, a nonprofit that trains and place residents in jobs. “On the South and West sides, in communities of color … the unemployment rate is astronomical.”
Norington-Reaves said many residents in Chicago and Cook County face significant barriers to these census jobs.
For one, the online application process may deter residents with limited computer literacy or a lack of internet access.
“We have a huge digital divide in our communities of color,” Norington-Reaves said.
She added that a lack of transparency and consistent communication about the delayed hiring and onboarding process has turned off some applicants.
At a recent community event, Norington-Reaves touted employment opportunities with the census bureau. “A woman raised her hand and said, ‘I applied for a role back in 2010, and when I go online, it says that my application is pending.’”
Should an applicant get the job, Norington-Reaves pointed out, the decennial positions are part-time and short-term — temporary gigs that will go away after the census is over. She said the census bureau should show residents what the next step in their career could be. “If this is only going to meet a short term need of mine, help me understand why I should invest in this,” she said.
Sanders, with the census bureau, emphasized the flexible hours and good pay. The Chicago regional office recently upped the minimum rate to $26.50 per hour in Cook County. She also said the bureau lifted its citizenship requirement for applicants in places that need enumerators with language skills.
Moreover, Sanders appealed to residents’ sense of civic duty.
“Working for the 2020 census allows you to help your community get a complete count,” she said. “The data that is collected will inform our future and future generations.”
As for the digital divide, Sanders said her office has deployed recruiting assistants to help applicants at public libraries, job centers, and other agencies around the region. They assist applicants with setting up accounts, resetting passwords, and filling out the application on the census jobs portal, Sanders said.
Both Sanders and Norington-Reaves said having enough applicants — and eventually hiring enough census workers — is crucial to a complete census count, especially in communities that have been historically undercounted: people of color, low-income residents, renters, immigrants, and young children, to name a few.
Norington-Reaves said it behooves the census bureau to “have enumerators that are representative of the community, but that also means you've got to target the community in order to be able to get access to those [workers].”
She suggested the bureau hold larger hiring events — something with which her organization could help — and provide “greater visibility and transparency into their selection process.”
In this climate where residents might loathe to open doors to strangers, Sanders said it’s important to recruit and hire “people who know the people that live in their community, who know when people may be home.”
“Trusted voices in a community knocking on the door help facilitate a complete and accurate count,” Sanders said.
Felicia Glover, 64, said she hopes to be one of those trusted voices hitting the streets and knocking on doors this spring.
Glover recently stopped by the Washington Heights Workforce Center, one of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership’s 53 sites across Chicagoland. A home health aide working 15 hours a week, Glover said she comes to the center every couple of weeks to use a computer and look for jobs.
During her recent visit, Glover got help resetting her password on the census jobs portal from a recruiting assistant, who was on-site to tout decennial jobs and help applicants.
Glover said she applied for a census job last September but has not heard back.
“Anticipating is like watching a suspense movie,” she said. “With a prayer, I hope I’ll be in that number.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.