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Heat, fear and stubborn doormen: What census workers face in the final month of NYC count

Enumerators hired by the U.S. Census Bureau have until Sept. 30 to avoid an undercount. But pandemic-scarred New Yorkers are less likely than ever to welcome in strangers.

September 3, 2020 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis story was originally published on June 25 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

The first responders to the non-responders have only a month left.

After a historically fraught census season marked by budget woes, political tussling over a citizenship question, a last-minute timeline cut and a pandemic, New York’s best hope to avoid a U.S. Census undercount is walking around your neighborhood right now.

Census enumerators are pounding the pavement across the five boroughs in an effort to confirm how many people live in the city — at a time when pandemic-scarred New Yorkers may be less likely than ever to answer a door-knock.

The enumerators have until Sept. 30 — a month earlier than originally expected — to get it all done.

Derek, an enumerator on the Upper West Side, applied for the job before the COVID-19 crisis hit. By the summer, he wasn’t sure he could go through with it.

“I did tell myself that I was going to try it for a week and see exactly how it worked out,” he said. “And if I genuinely did not feel safe, I would have most likely have just quit.”

Now, he says he’s committed to the job “until this thing is over.” He is one of a handful of city enumerators who spoke with THE CITY on the condition of anonymity: U.S. Census Bureau employees are not cleared to speak with the media.

Local Count Lags

They have their work cut out for them. In New York, the city’s self-response rate rose 10.7 percentage points between May and August according to a recent analysis.

But that still means only 57.4 percent of households have responded as of Aug. 28 — 6.6 percentage points lower than in 2010. And some hard-to-count neighborhoods are lagging by double digits.

The stakes of getting an accurate count are high for the city. Everything from Congressional seats to federal funding depends on the final numbers.

Andrea, an enumerator in Brooklyn, said she never “expected to be so personally invested in getting it done.”

At first, she took the job mostly because it paid well — at just under 30 bucks an hour — and allowed for a flexible schedule. Now, she finds herself educating, cajoling and sometimes nearly begging for basic information when faced with a reluctant subject.

“It’s really like, ‘You can turn me away, you can slam the door on me, but just tell me how many people live here,’” she said, describing her approach. “If you can just give me that, someone probably won’t bother you again.”

Census enumerator Andrea photographed the things she carries with her while door-knocking in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Census Enumerator
In Flushing, Queens, enumerator Katelyn finds that most people will answer the census questionnaire “once they’re at the door with me.”

But on the whole, “most people just straight up won’t open their doors,” she said.

“Some people are very obviously home, but won’t come to the door, which is fine. I’m not offended. I don’t take it personally because I mean, A) I don’t like opening my door to strangers either. But, B) there’s a global pandemic happening,” she said.

All surveys are completed via tablet by the enumerator, so the respondent doesn’t need to touch anything. The questionnaire takes about 10 minutes to complete.

But because of policies put in place due to COVID-19, physically getting to the door can be a challenge.

“A lot of doormen as well as building management just don’t want you in the building,” Derek said. “It does make it extremely hard, especially when I have 15 or 17 apartments that I have to do in this certain building, and I’m not able to. … And I’m not supposed to argue.”

Fighting Scams and Suspicions

The enumerators get their assignments for the day sometime between midnight and 7 a.m., they said.

Then they suit up. Each has two Bureau-issued cloth masks, hand sanitizer and gloves. A Census-branded bag and lanyard complete the uniform, which New Yorkers should look for when they get a visit.

Census-related scams are all too common: Just last week, fraudsters posing as census workers set up a table on 125th Street in Harlem, asking people for their Social Security numbers in exchange for $10 Subway gift cards, according to an alert sent out by a Bronx community board.

All enumerators who spoke with THE CITY said they don’t believe their health is at risk on the street and won’t let fears of contracting coronavirus stop them.

Census workers provided literature at a food bank in Corona, Queens, Aug. 26, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Ron, who has been enumerating in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, feels “mostly safe” from the virus, especially since the workers rarely enter anyone’s home and can usually keep a fair distance. Only once did COVID-19 get in the way of the job.

“There was one respondent that answered the door and was like, ‘Oh, I can’t open the door. I think I’m sick.’ And I said, ‘You know, I can actually do this interview through a closed door,’” Ron said.

But there was no further answer. “They just didn’t want to do it,” Ron recalled.

Enumerators say they’re learning more tips and tricks on the job.

Derek makes all of his Census-branded gear “as visible as possible,” to convince skeptical New Yorkers to talk with him. After getting a “really bad sunburn” her first day, Katelyn schedules her hours in the afternoon and evening to avoid the heat — and said she carries “a huge-a– water bottle.”

The Kindness of Strangers

Andrea has discovered when she can’t find an address, talking to longtime locals about what the area used to look like elicits a ton of help.

“It’s distinctly hard in New York and in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, especially rapidly gentrifying ones, because the building may not exist,” she said. “If we strike up a conversation about how much has changed … those are people who want to help.”

Still, enumerators say they regularly deal with insults and even threats on their routes.

Ron, who is gender non-conforming, has been verbally harassed and spat at because of their appearance. Separately, they were escorted by a group of men off of a property after knocking on the door of a basement apartment.

“Nobody said anything directly verbally threatening or violent. But it was very understood,” Ron said.

Andrea has been called a “b—h,” she said, but has never marked a case as “hostile” — an option the workers have if a visit gets out of hand.

Katelyn in Flushing counts herself lucky to not have been yelled at or threatened. She frequently reads through a Reddit group for census workers and sees a constant stream of enumerators posting about being harassed, or having the police called on them.

Still, the workers in New York are committed to the job and, on the whole, focus on the good. Ron said the people who are “really courteous and sweet” make a big difference.

“I just kind of try to hang on to that,” Ron said.

Tea and Talk

Andrea has enjoyed cataloging the area around her own home — most census workers are assigned to canvass their own neighborhoods — and getting to know her neighbors.

One of the best visits so far, she said, was visiting a large family about to have dinner.

“They offered me mint tea,” she said, noting that she declined because census workers can’t accept gifts.

“They were sitting down … ready to eat delicious-looking food,” she said. “I had a couple other cases in the building and I was like, ‘Finish eating.’ And then I came back and they brought a seat to me out in the hallway.”

With the family sitting inside the apartment and the door open between them, she completed the questionnaire and got them counted.

Complete your census questionnaire at

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