In tight market, Census plans to hike pay in some places

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Faced with a tight labor market, U.S. Census Bureau officials said Thursday they plan to raise wages for census workers in some areas and make it easier for applicants to get fingerprinted for background checks.

Bureau officials told members of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations that low unemployment was making it challenging in some communities to hire up to 500,000 temporary workers needed to survey households during next year's 2020 Census.

The bureau tested the job market in late summer and early fall when it hired 32,000 temporary workers to help verify addresses ahead of the 2020 count.

The bureau encountered higher than expected levels of dropout and no-show rates that officials blamed on inconvenient fingerprint locations, inadequate follow-up with applicants and uncompetitive wages in rural areas, said Albert Fontenot, an associate director at the bureau.

For the next wave of hiring, the bureau will increase wages by $1.50 an hour in some places and allow applicants to get fingerprinted at post offices. The pay for the part-time work currently ranges from $13.50 to $30 an hour. The bureau so far has 1 million applicants but is hoping to get another 1.7 million people applying for the temporary jobs, bureau officials said.

The bureau also has been working with industrial psychologists to help decide which type of backgrounds would eliminate someone from being hired to knock on the doors of people who don't respond to the questionnaire. While past arrests for traffic accidents or marijuana possession might get a pass, "we don't want people with violent crimes or house break-ins in their background," Fontenot said.

When it comes to people with unsavory affiliations, such as white supremacy groups, the bureau can only flag people with arrest records, he said.

"In every census, we have people who pop up doing things not in line with the mission," Fontenot said. "They're quickly released."

The committee covered a wide range of issues with Census Bureau officials Thursday, including data privacy, advertising, fighting misinformation, funding, messaging in hard-to-count communities and guarding against hacking.

For the first time ever, the Census Bureau is encouraging respondents to answer the questionnaire online, although respondents can also answer by telephone or by paper form. The bureau's computer system is expecting more than 120,000 online users at any given time, but it is built to handle 600,000 respondents and, if needed, up to 1 million people with the help of backup systems, said Michael Thieme, an assistant director at the bureau.

Census Bureau director Steve Dillingham said next year's national head count was "on mission, on target and on budget." But some committee members said they were worried he was being too optimistic, given hiring and budget challenges.

The bureau on Thursday also unveiled a series of public service announcements to bring awareness to the count. The PSA are targeted to specific communities, such as Spanish-speakers, African Americans, households with young children, Native Americans, Alaska natives, Puerto Ricans and people living in Hawaii. PSAs for other communities are planned for next year.

The bureau will start a series of media buys in January with a goal of raising awareness. In March, the campaign will encourage people to respond to the questionnaire, and by the end of April the message will remind people to fill out their form or they may receive a home visit from a Census worker, said Alex Hughes, executive director of VMLY&R, a marketing agency hired by the bureau.

"People aren't always eager to have someone knocking on their door," Hughes said. "It will be ... 'Please respond now before someone goes knocking on your door.'"

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