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Want to make $27.50 an hour to knock on doors? The census is struggling to hire workers

Chris Worrell chatted with Teresa Jefferson as he applied to work the 2020 Census at the John Tierney Learning Center in Boston.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Accounting for roughly 330 million people is no easy task. Every 10 years, the US Census Bureau recruits an army of temporary workers to knock on strangers’ doors in the evenings and on weekends in order to get an accurate population count. But with unemployment at a nearly 50-year low, filling the ranks is proving to be a challenge.

So the agency is getting creative, seeking out potential workers in breweries, churches, laundromats, and restaurants. It has appealed to Uber and Lyft drivers and seasonal Macy’s workers. And in a bit of irony, it even has recruiters going door to door.

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The big push starts in March, when large-scale hiring begins and letters go out to nearly 140 million households inviting them to fill out the census online or over the phone — both new options — or in writing. And when an anticipated 60 million households fail to respond to five rounds of mailings (or to hand-delivered invitations in remote areas), the census will deploy half a million temporary workers to find out the name, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and housing situation of every person unaccounted for.

In New England, the government is looking to fill 20,000 census taker positions — known as enumerators in census-speak — including around 1,600 in the Boston area alone. But in many places it is well below its recruiting goal.

In Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire — the most difficult states for hiring because the population is sparse, unemployment is low, and residents live there “to get away from everything” — the search for workers is even more extensive , said Jeff Behler, the Census Bureau’s regional director in the Northeast.

“We go to sledding hills,” he said. “We’re going to craft shows and flea markets. We’re going to skating rinks. That’s what we have to do this time around.”

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In the Boston area, where the unemployment rate is 2.1 percent, compared to 3.5 percent nationwide, the Census Bureau is only at 82 percent of its recruiting goal. In other parts of Massachusetts and in northern New England, it’s far lower.

Nationwide, 2.6 million people have applied for census jobs so far, which is about on track, said Tim Olson, census associate director for field operations. But compare that to 2010, when many people were still out of work following the recession. So many applied — 3.9 million overall — that the recruiting process was stopped early.

The requirements are simple: Census takers must be 18 or older, pass a background check showing they have no history of violent crimes, and be US citizens (though exceptions can be made for noncitizens if there is a need for their language skills). This year the census will be offered in 13 languages, up from five in the past.

The pay is decent — $22-$27.50 an hour in Massachusetts. But it’s not a job for everyone.

“We always get the people who make it all the way through training, they go out there, they knock on a door, they get a door slammed in their face, and they say, ‘I quit,’ ” Behler said.

The census is mandated by the Constitution to determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives and is used to allocate more than $1.5 trillion in annual funding for education, health care, housing, and more.

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The rise of the gig economy has been helpful for hiring, census executives said, because more people are supporting themselves by cobbling together side jobs. While they were riding in an Uber in Boston, for instance, their driver pounced on the opportunity, Olson said: “He goes, ‘$27.50 an hour?’ I almost thought he was going to slam his brakes on. He literally said, ‘Get out of the car, I’m applying right now.’ ”

Each census taker will be equipped with an iPhone, on which they will get daily assignments of households to visit and can transmit the results of their interviews, part of a $2 billion investment to digitize the process.

The in-person counting has already begun in remote parts of Alaska and will start shortly at hard-to-reach households in Maine. Nursing homes, prisons, college dorms, and military barracks also get counted early. In Boston, considered one of the hardest cities to count because of the high numbers of college students, renters, and recent immigrants, workers will soon start tracking down college students living off-campus who may be gone by the time the massive in-person head counts begin May 13.

The majority of nonresponsive households will be counted in the first month of large-scale one-to-one outreach, but then productivity slows significantly. The last 6 to 7 percent are particularly tough, Olson said. “Those are the people that intentionally are avoiding us,” he said.

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For those who can’t be tracked down, the census relies on “proxy responses” from neighbors or postal workers who can give estimated head counts.

“We’re not done until we’ve got each address in the nation accounted for,” Olson said.

Still, miscounts happen, and this year could be worse than usual due to demographic changes, underfunding, and immigration concerns, according to the Urban Institute.

Immigrants have long been reluctant to respond to the census out of fear that family members’ status, whether they are undocumented or have been granted special protections, will be revealed to authorities, despite the fact that their answers are confidential. President Trump’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, which the Supreme Court blocked, fueled more fear, and it continues today.

Heightened immigration enforcement has created “an atmosphere of panic and anxiety” about engaging with authorities of any kind, said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Association and chair of the state’s Complete Count Committee, a group of 130 organizations spreading awareness about the census. Foreign-born immigrants account for the vast majority of the 1.6 million people considered “hard to reach” in Massachusetts, along with students, homeless people, and rural residents, Millona said. And given the fact that every person in Massachusetts is worth nearly $2,400 in federal funding, getting an accurate count is crucial.

“This is the hardest and most challenging census of all time,” she said.

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At the same time, though, groups are more engaged in spreading awareness of the count than ever before, Olson said. A public service announcement by two prominent Latinos, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, encourages fellow New Yorkers to participate. “The census is a count of everyone in the United States, no matter your immigration status,” Ocasio-Cortez tells a classroom of diverse students. “Your information is completely confidential.”

Libraries are inviting people in to apply for jobs and fill out census forms on their computers; religious leaders are inviting census officials to hold informational sessions in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Nonprofits are holding job fairs and recruiting census takers who are trusted voices in their communities and ideally speak the language of each household they visit, said Katie Campbell Simons, project consultant for the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, a group of 20 foundations that has raised $1.4million to conduct census outreach.

“If we have enumerators coming to the doors in our neighborhoods, let’s have them be people we know,” Campbell Simons said.

With the enhanced ability to communicate and access information digitally, people’s interest in the census is like nothing Olson has ever seen in the four counts he’s been a part of.

“It’s an easy thing for them to grab onto and say, ‘This is about our future and we want to make a difference,’ " he said. " ‘We don’t want to be invisible. . . . We don’t want to be taken for granted. We are part of this nation.’ ”

Now he just needs to find enough workers to make sure they’re all accounted for.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.