Chicago Census Workers Feel Pressured To Rush The Count As The Deadline Battle Continues

Census enumerator’s bag
In this Aug. 11, 2020 file photo, a briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence in Winter Park, Fla. Chicago census workers told WBEZ that they're feeling rushed to close cases even though a federal judge has extended the deadline for the 2020 Census to Oct. 31. Despite the extension, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to end field operations on Oct. 5. John Raoux / Associated Press
Census enumerator’s bag
In this Aug. 11, 2020 file photo, a briefcase of a census taker is seen as she knocks on the door of a residence in Winter Park, Fla. Chicago census workers told WBEZ that they're feeling rushed to close cases even though a federal judge has extended the deadline for the 2020 Census to Oct. 31. Despite the extension, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to end field operations on Oct. 5. John Raoux / Associated Press

Chicago Census Workers Feel Pressured To Rush The Count As The Deadline Battle Continues

Despite a federal judge’s court order that allows counting for the 2020 Census to continue through the end of October, the U.S. Department of Commerce has announced it is ending field operations on Oct. 5.

The news was announced in a tweet and on the website of the U.S. Census Bureau Monday afternoon. Documents from the court case that prompted the court order show that the commerce department decided to conclude field operations on Oct. 5 to allow for the census bureau to deliver the final census tally to President Trump by Dec. 31.

Federal Judge Lucy Koh, who last week issued an injunction blocking the administration from wrapping up the counting on Sept. 30, had also blocked the bureau from implementing the Dec. 31 deadline for the final tally.

As the fight over these deadlines continues in the courts, enumerators on the ground in Chicago report confusion over their workload and pressure to quickly close out cases.

“It doesn’t make sense; nothing makes sense,” said Laura Crotte, an enumerator in Chicago’s Brighton Park, McKinley Park and Back of the Yards neighborhoods. “It is this chaos that just creates a lot of disappointment and a lot of feeling [like] we’re never getting there — we’re never counting all of us.”

Crotte told WBEZ that her caseload — the list of addresses where residents did not self-respond, or homes the bureau was sending her out for other quality control reasons — shrank drastically about two weeks ago, from between 60 and 140 cases each day to fewer than five the past several days. She said she and her team members have been asking for more cases but not hearing back in a consistent manner.

Crotte added this development is troubling, since many neighborhoods in Chicago — including the ones she is helping to enumerate — are showing low self-response rates.

She added that she was told on Tuesday the caseloads would decrease in the coming days, but if enumerators wished, they could be added to a list of people who travel to other cities and states to help with counting out of town.

Jesse Rothenberg, an enumerator covering several Northwest Side neighborhoods, said he is feeling “a lot of pressure to close out cases.”

He said a fellow enumerator told him that her supervisor’s instructions to mark an address as vacant in order to close out the case. “I think that was the day that they announced [the count] was going to [Oct. 31], and I was like, if we have a whole other month to do this, let’s just get some time back here every day, you know?”

A third enumerator, who has worked mostly in East Lake View, said, “Honestly, a lot of what’s going wrong was going to go wrong even without the pandemic. [COVID-19] is just providing cover.”

The East Lake View enumerator, who spoke with WBEZ on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, cited numerous inefficiencies and workflow problems, particularly in enumerating large buildings and apartment complexes. She also said, during the past week, her supervisor had also given instructions to close out “re-interview” cases — those are part of the quality control measures put in place by the census bureau to check the work of previous enumerators.

Some census workers acknowledged that these methods may be a way to “declutter” the caseloads of workers to help them focus on the remaining addresses that need to be counted. However, the East Lake View enumerator said closing out these cases means that they aren’t thoroughly performing the quality control needed to ensure the accuracy of the census count.

The census bureau did not respond immediately to WBEZ’s request for comment about the decision to end field operations on Oct. 5 or about the concerns of some enumerators that the agency is rushing the count.

Also on Tuesday, a three-judge court in New York rejected the Trump administration’s request to block the court’s order against the president’s memo attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from the state population counts for apportionment. That case is currently on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.