Prior to start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I volunteered to be a census enumerator. I was chosen after a phone interview back in March 2020. Due to the pandemic and quarantine, our training was delayed till early August. This is the story of my eight weeks working for the US Census department.
I am an immigrant and came to America at the age of 10. I lived a full life and am now retired. I wanted to give back to my community and my country. When I heard about the census needing enumerators with language skills, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to volunteer. The job is simple and the schedule is flexible, but the pay is just a bonus. They also reimburse for mileage. It is of limited duration. In this case, it was only eight weeks due to the COVID-19 shutdown. The start of the census enumerator program was delayed by two months. Despite the challenges of training with social distancing protocol and shortened periods, we got the job done. As of August 22, 2020, 95% of the households had been counted. It will never be 100%. The last few percent can be deduced by other means.
The Application Process Was Simple
It is an easy process to apply. The interview was conducted via phone. I interviewed for about 15 minutes and was selected. The process does take some time. It was a few months before I heard from them again. This time, I was instructed to go to the local office in Peekskill. There, they took my photo and fingerprint. Another month went by and by then the pandemic had hit. The office was shut down for about four months. I received periodic calls during that time to make sure I was still interested. In early August, I was contacted to start my training.
The Intense Training Period
The training period was a little intense. It included a three-hour face-to-face meeting with a supervisor where we were given a smart phone, with which we set up a secure account. We signed a few legal documents and were sworn in. We were given an ID badge with our photo on it. We were also given a bag with all the forms and materials we will need for performing our task.
This was followed by a 12-hour online training class over the course of 5 days. During this time, we were instructed on how to use the various apps on the smart phone, including data capture, time and expense, time scheduling, and the help hotline.
Finally, we had a three-hour conference call with about 10 other newly trained enumerators, where we conducted role play, live interactions, and simulated a typical interview. We were given time to ask questions and learn about the details of this task.
Afterwards, a simple assessment test of 20 questions was conducted online to make sure we were all well-versed in the material.
The most important part of this training, in my opinion, is your attitude. We repeated taught about the three 'A's. In dealing with a potential respondent, we need to:
- Acknowledge their concerns
- Answer their questions
- Ask for their help in completing the survey.
This simple attitude will go a long way to getting the job done.
My First Day
My first day, I was a bit nervous. Luckily, my first case was a neighbor whose kids happens to be friends of my son. It made the interview much easier and I was able to practice reading the questions from the smartphone and record the responses. We chatted a bit before and after the interview and made a personal connection. From there, the rest of the day was easy and smooth. I only signed up for four hours, so it was a part time job. I completed about 12 cases the first day. A few just consisted of leaving a notice at the door since no one was home.
The Benefits of Being a Census Enumerator
Here are a few of the many benefits of being an enumerator:
- Flexible schedule and hours. Work a maximum 8 hours per day and 40 hours a week.
- Pay is $23 per hour, plus mileage.
- All the materials you need are provided for you, such as a smart phone and some forms
- Assignments are usually nearby. Mine were within a few miles of my house.
- Talking to your neighbors
- Visiting houses in your neighborhood
- Doing your civic duty to help your community
A few pitfalls are inevitable, Some people are just not cooperative. This is a voluntary activity. They are not required by law to complete the questionnaire. Our job is to get on their good side and engage with them so that we can hopefully connect and get a response.
My advice is that you shouldn't take it personally when you are rejected. It is not about you. Some are too busy, don't trust the government, or are just naturally unfriendly.
Read More From Soapboxie
Keep your cool, thank them for their time, and move on.
The idea to keep in mind is that we are just interested in counting heads—all other information is just gravy. Whatever info we are able to collect is better than none.
Here are a few stats I collected about my experience over the course of eight week:
- I conducted about 600 cases.
- I worked 15-20 hours per week, on average.
- I trained for 20 hours over the course of five days.
- Only about 1% of cases were language-related. In my case, it was Mandarin.
- About 30% of the cases were just leaving a "Notice of Visit" form.
- The average interview took about 10 minutes or less.
- My typical drives was less than 20 miles per four-hour shift.
- Most cases involve multiple visits, like three or more.
- A small number of cases were duplicates—people who had already completed the census online.
Lessons Learned on the Job
There are some things that you can only learn on the job, and this is no different. Despite extensive training, there is always something you can only learn by doing it. Here is a list of things I learned and would like to pass on to future enumerators:
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. Some things need to be clarified, and the supervisor is the first line of defense.
- The system is imperfect. There are errors, and it is our job to find and fix them as best we can.
- Be persistent when it comes to getting results. A little extra effort will get the job done most of the time.
- Use common sense. When all else fails, just use your own instincts and best judgement.
- Follow all the rules. The government sticks to them, with no exceptions.
- Take your time. Haste makes waste.
- Be prepared.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Have fun and observe.
- Listen and learn. Most people will tell you if you are receptive.
My Most Memorable Interview
We are told never to reveal any data we collected. This is strictly confidential for the purpose of census and demographics assessment, under penalty of fines and jail for any violations. The integrity of the census is based on trust in all the people who work at the Census bureau and our Federal government.
Not giving away any secrets or details, my most memorable interview was an old gentleman who owns a small farm about two miles from my house. I have lived here 37 years and never knew it existed. They don't advertise and only sell to locals by word of mouth. They have a small butcher shop that carries the best steaks, lamb chops, and free range chicken, and turkeys. It costs a bit more than the local supermarket, but the quality is tops.
He told me that he came here as an immigrant from Italy. He worked hard, bought the farm, and built it from scratch. He raised a family, and now his daughter helps with running this farm. It is a family operation. They raise livestock and grows some fruits and vegetables. He told me he served in the great war. He was an interesting character and took the time to talk to me after the interview. He asked about my personal background.
Here is an American who has lived the American dream very much like me, though with obviously different skills and a different age. He is a generation older than me. He has many grandchildren and yet is still working. He would not trade it for the world. We talked about the technology of the smartphone and how we could not live without it. He is old-school and I admire that. Even though I worked in technology, I am of the belief that people are more important, and that connecting with people face-to-face is preferable to texting or phone calls.
All training except for the first day was conducted over the computer and the smartphone. This included the exit debriefing. Make sure you have a good computer that has a large display. There is a lot of reading material. One of my pet peeves is the display screen on the smartphone. It is too small for both reading and entering data. My one suggestion for the future is to go with a phone with a larger screen size.
The other suggestion is to spend a little time in training to handle the odd cases, such as duplicate cases or cases where an address is wrong, in error, or vacant. Many enumerators waste time by not recognizing these cases early and closing it out so that other enumerators are not sent back.
The same applies to visiting the same households multiple times in a short period. This annoys people and frustrates them. Scheduling can be improved.
In my case, the cases that required my language skills should have been assigned to me much sooner. I had cases where the people were contacted eight times before the case got to me.
This is one of the best jobs I have ever had. It was a very rewarding experience, as well as informative. I understand how the census is conducted and the details of what goes on. I also have a good snapshot of our community. I have been to places near my house that I have never been to and I met some interesting people. I would recommend this job to anyone.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Jack Lee