Sid Torun, owner of M.S. Torun Family Vineyards, walks through a portion of his property that was burned by the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 24, 2020 in Vacaville, California.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Sid Torun, owner of M.S. Torun Family Vineyards, walks through a portion of his property that was burned by the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 24, 2020 in Vacaville, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Cutting Census Staff in Wildfire Zones Threatens Accurate Count, Workers Warn

Cutting Census Staff in Wildfire Zones Threatens Accurate Count, Workers Warn

Before a federal judge in San Jose on Saturday temporarily blocked the U.S. Census Bureau from winding down its operations early, the agency had begun laying off door-to-door outreach workers — even in fire-damaged regions of Northern California, according to census employees and internal emails obtained by KQED.

In one hard-hit area in Napa and Solano counties, more than 40 door knockers, known as enumerators, were let go early last week, the emails showed. One employee estimated that was about 40% of the door-to-door staff for that zone, where fire evacuations, road closures and thick smoke have hindered the census count.

The layoffs of temporary workers, which started a full month before the federal government’s current deadline for completing the once-a-decade head count, have alarmed some elected officials and census employees, and eroded their trust in the Trump administration’s commitment to overseeing a complete and accurate census.

Workers told KQED that the difficulties posed by wildfires, on top of the coronavirus pandemic, mean more enumerators are needed — not fewer — if they are to count everyone by Sept. 30, the bureau’s new date to end the count, which is one month earlier than the Oct. 31 deadline officials had previously proposed.

Census workers told KQED that the difficulties posed by wildfires, on top of the coronavirus pandemic, mean more enumerators are needed — not fewer — if they are to count everyone by Sept. 30
Census workers told KQED that the difficulties posed by wildfires, on top of the coronavirus pandemic, mean more enumerators are needed — not fewer — if they are to count everyone by Sept. 30. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

“We've got a hopeless number of cases to do in a shortened amount of time,” said one Bay Area field supervisor, who did not want to be named for fear of being fired. “I look at that and go: ‘It looks like sabotage to me.’ ”

Census Bureau officials declined KQED’s request for an interview, but issued a statement acknowledging the job cuts and declaring that door-to-door follow up is going as planned in the region that includes California and six other Western states.

“We are currently on track to complete this operation by the September 30th deadline,” the statement said. “There are now fewer assignments available for the census takers we have hired. As we complete the remaining workload, we will be offering shifts to those employees who meet a threshold of performance and availability, as these remaining assignments require more time and effort.”

Judge Intervenes

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh granted a temporary restraining order that blocks the Census Bureau from terminating more staff until she holds a hearing on Sept. 17. The move comes in response to a lawsuit brought by the cities of San Jose and Los Angeles, along with other local governments, civil rights groups and Native American tribes.

The lawsuit asks the court to require counting operations to continue through Oct. 31, arguing that shortening the timeline will unlawfully harm the accuracy of crucial census data.

If not for the pandemic, the door-to-door follow ups with households that have not yet responded to the census would have been completed by the end of July. But field operations shut down in the spring over concerns about COVID-19, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asked Congress for an extension until April 2021 to report state population numbers to the president. Then, on Aug. 3, they reversed themselves and said they would hold to the statutory reporting deadline of Dec. 31 deadline, and thus end the counting period by Sept. 30.

Plaintiffs allege that the shortened time frame is designed to ensure that President Trump can control the population numbers used for reapportionment — the process of distributing congressional seats among the states — whether or not he is reelected. Trump has also pushed to omit undocumented immigrants from the reapportionment count, a move that would likely benefit Republicans and is now being challenged in a number of courts.

In her order, Koh noted that census officials previously stated that there was not enough time remaining to get accurate counts to the president by the end of the year. In halting the wind-down of the field operations, she also quoted a census official saying, “It is difficult to bring back field staff once we have terminated their employment.”

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Short-Staffed

Three census supervisors working from a field office in the North Bay spoke to KQED on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared losing their jobs.

On Monday, the first supervisor said, tens of thousands of households still had yet to be contacted — including at least half the caseload in the wildfire area.

The supervisors said they were told in late August to encourage their field staff to work at least 10 hours a week, in spite of heavy smoke from the fires. The second supervisor said that at least two crew members suffered from asthma.

On Aug. 31, however, an email from management announced immediate layoffs, stating: “At this point we need to separate any enumerators that have worked less than 15 (hours) from the last pay period.”

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The three supervisors said the 15-hour minimum had not been announced previously, and that they were then told that their crews would be required to work at least 25 hours or risk losing their jobs.

An email from a manager on Sept. 1 included a list of “deactivated” employees, effective immediately, due to “low hours worked,” adding that “the rest of the enumerators will be deactivated next week or the week after.”

The first supervisor called the situation “chaos,” and said: “Now, as the skies are clearing, you’ve got enumerators who were trained, activated and ready to work, who’ve been terminated.”

“There’s no way we’re going to finish,” the second supervisor said. “The census is super important. I mean, I know it’s a job, but for some of us it’s more than a job. We’re supposed to be counting everyone in the country.”

The third supervisor noted that managers indicated they would reassign workers from elsewhere in the Bay Area to assist in completing the work, possibly by phone.

“The people working ... they know intimately the roads. These are their neighbors. And now we're going to have people from San Jose calling?” the supervisor said. “The result is, we’ll be undercounted, at least in our county.”

Pamphlets with 2020 census information are included in boxes of food to be distributed by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to people facing economic or food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 6, 2020 in Paramount, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

High-Stakes Count

State leaders are worried that an incomplete census count will mean California loses at least one congressional seat during the reapportionment process next year, and that the state will forfeit tens of billions of federal dollars over the next decade.

In a Sept. 3 letter to Commerce Secretary Ross and Census Director Dillingham, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, whose North Bay district has been hard-hit by the fires, said he has heard from census enumerators in his district about the staff cuts, which he called a source of “grave concerns.”

“As my district confronts the twin disasters of the COVID pandemic and LNU Lightning Complex fires, getting an accurate count has never been more important,” he said. “We cannot afford to cut short this operation.”

The full delegation of California’s Democratic senators and representatives also sent a letter Thursday to Dillingham calling for answers on how the bureau can complete the count by the end of the month, when more than 12% of American households have yet to be reached. In particular, the lawmakers asked whether there were plans to hire more census enumerators to find all the people made homeless by the pandemic and whether the wildfires had affected staffing needs.

San Mateo Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who signed the letter and monitors census operations as a member of the House Oversight Committee, said an internal Census Bureau document obtained by her committee reveals that the census could be “seriously degraded in accuracy and completeness” as a result of the shortened time frame.

“They are sabotaging the census, they are manipulating the census, they are politicizing the census,” Speier told KQED. “All of these things are being done by this administration for one reason and one reason only, and that is to undermine the count so that the poor are not counted, persons of color aren’t counted, and the result will have an effect on reapportionment.”

If segments of California’s population are missed by the census, that could also distort the way the state draws its own political district lines, said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It’s a benchmark that everybody turns to, and it’s treated so often as the truth,” he said. “If the truth is suddenly compromised, that’s a really bad place to be in.”

According to the Census Bureau, as of Monday, the door-knocking work was more than 70% complete in both North Bay field offices. The work, known as non-response follow up, was at least 60% complete across California.

The bureau did not respond to KQED’s questions about how it is adapting its work to account for the fires, instead saying: “We encourage all people who are displaced by any natural disaster to make sure they self-respond to the census,” which can be done online, by phone or by mail.

Speier said she is worried that if the count is seriously tainted, the country has no playbook for how to correct it, and no budget to do it over again.

“What they have to do is guarantee we have an accurate census,” she said. “It’s critical. If we don’t, then we’re back to square one. And we don’t have a means in statute to go back and do another.”

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