In 13 States, Census Bureau To Resume Hand-Delivering Forms, Hiring Workers

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After suspending 2020 census field operations because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau says it's restarting the hand-delivery of paper forms in rural communities and the hiring of door knockers in some parts of 13 states. Photo by Ted S. Warren - AP

Updated at 8:56 p.m. ET

Some workers for the 2020 census are heading back to rural communities this week in more than a dozen states as part of a phased-in restart of field operations, which were suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Certain local census offices in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia are resuming operations this week, the Census Bureau announced Monday.

Workers there are set to undergo safety training and receive personal protective equipment, the bureau said, before they're sent out to hand-deliver paper census forms in areas where most homes receive mail at post office boxes or drop points.

"The Update Leave operation does not require interaction between households and a Census Bureau employee and follows the most current federal health and safety guidelines," the bureau's press release said.

Asked by NPR what specific "social distancing protocols" census workers will have to follow, the Census Bureau says in an email that it's relying on CDC guidance, including standing six feet away from another person.

In addition to ordering disinfectant wipes for its local offices, the bureau tells NPR it is preparing to provide each employee a new reusable face mask for every 10 days worked and a pair of gloves each work day. Employees conducting field operations will also receive hand sanitizer.

The bureau is also preparing to resume fingerprinting for newly hired door knockers, who are currently set to visit homes that haven't yet participated in the count, starting in August.

Monday's announcement comes after Census Bureau officials informed the House Oversight and Reform Committee late last month of its plans to switch from a nationwide relaunch of field operations on June 1 to a restart in waves based on public health guidance and the availability of protective equipment.

Despite the pause, the bureau has continued collecting responses from households across the country for the once-a-decade, constitutionally mandated count of every person living in the country. As of Sunday, close to 84 million households have participated — most of them online at my2020census.gov — putting the national self-response rate at more than 56%.

At least a decade's worth of consequences in political power and federal funding come with the count's results. They are used to help determine each state's share of an estimated $1.5 trillion a year that are distributed for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services.

The latest population counts from the census are also used to redraw voting districts and redistribute the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states.

Because the pandemic has wreaked havoc on its schedule for the 2020 census, the bureau has proposed pushing back the legal deadlines to deliver new state population counts to the president for reapportioning Congress and to provide to the states redistricting data — including information derived from government records on the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in the country as requested by the Trump administration.

Delaying those deadlines would upend redistricting plans in many states. Still, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the House oversight committee, has voiced support for the bureau's request for four-month extensions, which Maloney suggested could be included in an upcoming bill or the next COVID-19 relief package.

"We have to adjust to the times," Maloney said during a press conference last week.

All of the interruptions to 2020 census plans — which are costing the bureau $1.5 billion of its $2 billion emergency budget — have heightened concerns that historically undercounted groups, including rural residents and people of color, will not be accurately represented in data that policymakers, business leaders and researchers rely on for demographic insight into the U.S. population.

As of Monday, the bureau has not announced any revised plans for counting people who are experiencing homelessness, going door to door for in-person counting in some American Indian tribal territories or hand-delivering paper forms in Puerto Rico, where the latest self-response rate trails behind those of the states at 7.6%.

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