'Nobody Knows What's Going On': Census Workers Decry Chaos as Trump Administration Challenges Court Order

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Census enumerators say they have received inconsistent messages and workloads in recent days despite court order to keep count going.

With just days until the Trump administration says it will end counting for the 2020 Census despite a court order to keep it going, enumerators across the country are facing confusion and conflicting guidance as to how long they will remain on the rolls. 

A federal judge blocked the Commerce Department and White House from ending the census on Wednesday, as it had planned to do since August, while putting an injunction on its effort to turn over apportionment data by the end of the year. Still, Census told the court it would wrap up its count by Oct. 5 in order to meet the statutory deadline to deliver the data by Dec. 31. The Trump administration appealed the judge’s decision, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected that effort on Wednesday. 

Census has yet to announce any revision to its Oct. 5 end date, leaving enumerators and supervisors in the field unclear of the path forward. Commerce, the bureau’s parent department, sent a message earlier this week to all of the 230,000 temporary workers it still had on staff notifying them of the Oct. 5 target end date. 

Jared Hautamaki, an enumerator in Maryland, has seen inconsistent instructions just within his own family. His wife, who is also working temporarily for Census, was told by her supervisor not to enter any new availability for work after Sept. 30, as her group would wrap up then. Hautamaki, meanwhile, is still planning to work this weekend. 

“The messaging has been completely inconsistent with Judge [Lucy] Koh’s ruling,” said Hautamaki, who works full time as an attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency, referencing the federal judge in California who issued the injunction. “It’s a mess.” 

Another Census worker who asked to remain anonymous said he has received different information depending on who he talks to in the bureau. 

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he said. 

The enumerator has driven to other states at Census’ request to complete work. This week, after he returned home from one such trip, he was told they had booked him a flight to a new state departing from the place he had just left. 

“Nobody knows what’s going on,” he said. “Some people are saying they’re shutting things down,” while others are proceeding with the work. “It’s very confused. Nobody knows how it’s going to go from day to day.” 

Jeff Williams, an enumerator in California, said he was told there was no more work about 10 days ago. Earlier this week, however, his supervisor reached out to say he should start taking cases again. 

While they previously shut him down to prepare for the Sept. 30 end date, now, “We’re supposed to go to Oct. 5th, and they’re saying, ‘Release the hounds, you can work all you want to,’” Williams said. 

There remains a significant amount of work to conduct, said Williams, who signed on as an enumerator due to a sense of civic duty despite his dealing with his full-time career, two children and the grief of dealing with the death of his mother earlier this month.

“My supervisor doesn’t know what to do,” he said. Every day has seemed to bring a new answer as they wondered, “Are we going forward or not?” 

Hautamaki also said there were a large number of cases outstanding. “There’s definitely still work to be done out there,” he said.

Census officials, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and President Trump have all at various times said it was no longer possible to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to deliver data from the count due to delays already implemented after the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold. Those delays caused Census to develop a new plan in which it would continue counting through Oct. 31 and deliver data in April 2021, but it subsequently changed those deadlines to Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, respectively. Watchdogs such as the Commerce inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have found the truncated timetable risks an incomplete and inaccurate count. The Trump administration has said it must meet its statutory obligation to deliver data by the end of the year.

Plaintiffs in the case that led to the injunction have requested Koh place strict oversight on the Trump administration to ensure it is following her order, including by notifying employees they should continue the count through Oct. 31. The Trump administration on Thursday asked the court not to institute such requirements, saying it would “only cause chaos and confusion during these critical days of census field operations.” It added it does not need more time as it has enumerated 98.9% of households in the country, though 16 states and Washington, D.C., remain below the target of 99% of households counted. Koh is set to hold a hearing on Friday. 

“I hope the judge comes down hard on them,” said the enumerator who asked not to be identified. 

He said the condensed timeframe has negatively impacted the work product. 

“We’re not doing as accurate of a job as we should, and I think it’s because of these arbitrary deadlines,” he said. “It’s really putting the pressure on us.”

The most difficult neighborhoods to count, he said, “are the ones that are really in need.” 

“If we can get to the 31st that would give us more breathing space and we could really get it worked out,” he said. 

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