‘It’s a tough choice’: US Census worker is concerned about safety but won’t quit

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Mail containing information on the 2020 Census from the United States Census Bureau pictured in Portland, Ore., on April 6, 2020. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA.

The U.S. Census Bureau will soon launch a big push to count people who didn’t respond to the first round of questions by mail or online. Workers will go door to door and into hard-to-count communities, like RV parks and homeless shelters. Workers will wear masks, but the risk of contagion remains, especially in California, which has the nation’s largest number of COVID-19 cases. 

KCRW speaks with a Census clerk who goes by J. He doesn’t want to use his full name for fear of losing his job. His duties include making phone calls to field sites, organizing paperwork, and assembling kits for Census workers who go out and knock on doors. 

He describes his office: “The desks have been placed [at] what they say is six feet apart. So I imagine the chair is six feet apart. ... Those desks, they are set in little quads, little four-person cubes or whatever. And all of those people are sitting there facing each other.”

Does J. feel unsafe at his workplace? He says yes — because it’s a closed, indoor environment and because of the sheer number of people there.  

“We had 30 people in one office. … The building’s COVID restrictions are saying, ‘Don’t have a gathering of more than 10 people.’ And we easily have that on a daily basis,” he says. 

Why can’t he work from home? It’s a security issue, he says. “We’re dealing with sensitive data, people’s personal information. … I imagine part of it is the access to the programs that we’re using. … I imagine we’re on a secure server.” 

The people who go out and knock on doors, J. says they’ve picked up materials from a site where people tested positive for COVID-19, and placed those items in a trash bag to return to the office. Those items are then sanitized. 

In the meantime, J. says he’ll keep showing up to work and hope he doesn’t get COVID-19. “There’s record unemployment right now. It’s actually a pretty good paying job. … And to try to leave it and go into employment limbo, it’s not a great idea. It’s a tough choice.”

— Written by Amy Ta and Angie Perrin, produced by Angie Perrin