As some of you know, I’ve been looking for my next career mission for some time now. And this spring, like so many millions of Americans, I lost the job I had. So, a few months ago, on a lark, I signed up to work for the U.S. Census as a backstop for some income while I continued to look for that great new job. I always expected I would land a job before actual Census work began … but I did not. It’s not that the Census itself didn’t make an effort in that regard – it took them several months to contact me about starting work. But from about mid-August to Monday, September 21, I was a proud member of the Department of Commerce going door-to-door to make sure Americans were counted. It was an interesting month.
But before the anecdotes, let’s first remember why the Census is so important. Every ten years, the Department of Commerce, through the U.S. Census Bureau, is charge with counting everyone in the country. It greatly affects how much Federal funding goes to states and localities for education, healthcare, senior centers, and a bevvy of social and community services. If your state is shown to be growing, you get more money. If your state is losing people, you’re going to lose money. It also determines how many members of the House of Representatives each state will have for the next 10 years. If you’re state is growing, you may gain a congressional district or two, which increases a state’s power in the House. If you’re state is losing people, you may lose a seat or two, which invariably leads to incumbent members of congress running against each other for House seats that used to be two House seats. Very messy, and – you guessed it – usually affecting Democrats.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made Census work harder for the department, and earlier this year the Census asked the Federal government for additional time to count people living in this country up until December, and to hand over their results in April of 2021. It was a very reasonable request. But of course, enter Donald Trump. Hedging his bets on the chance he could lose the election, Trump ordered the Commerce Department to end Census counting on September 30, in order to have Census data delivered to him by December. This, of course, gives the Republicans control of Congressional Reapportionment rather than the next president. Heaven forbid we take the time to get all of America counted in the Census. And who does that affect? Who are the hardest people to count? Black and Brown people in lower income areas. Who does that affect? DEMOCRATS (No, to answer your question, the Republicans have no shame and perform all their nasty political games out in the open, hoping you don’t watch the news).
I was among literally the last batch of hires the Census made in August. Upon hire, I was sent links to digital training sessions which prepared me to go door to door. They were actually very detailed and easy to follow. I must give the government credit for their online training platform, which I’m sure they didn’t have long to put together when COVID struck. Then it was time to visit the Census office in Inglewood, one of two headquarters for the L.A. Area (the other being in South Gate) to pick up my satchel of paperwork and an iPhone specifically loaded with Census tracking software. Each day, I would submit my hours available via a Census app on the phone and would receive a case list manageable enough to match the hours I had that day. One of the other things the Census should be complimented for is having enumerators (people counters) work the areas near their own homes. It allows for the chance that a skeptical neighbor will respond because they recognize or know the enumerator knocking on their door. On several days of work, I never needed my car as the addresses I was told to contact were literally in my immediate neighborhood. These homes were the folks who had not yet filled out their Census survey online since the government sent the invitation to do so back in March/April. When someone answered the door, it was my job to be friendly and let them know we unfortunately don’t have their household counted yet, and could they take about 8 minutes with me to answer the survey questions, the answers for which I logged their right into the Census app on the iPhone.
The folks I encountered largely fell into the following categories:
- The people who feel guilty for not doing the survey yet and are happy to conduct it with you on the spot. This happened for me at most about 15 times (I visited hundreds of homes). But it did produce my two best stories. One nice woman in Brentwood was about to sit down for lunch with her nephew and invited me into her (palatial) backyard to sit comfortably to do the survey. What’s more, she asked me what I normally did for a living, and upon telling her, she started brainstorming ideas with me! She even went so far as to ask for my email address to send me links to a few organizations she thought I should try and work for. By the time I got home that evening, she had come through and sent me an email. At a home on Stanford Street in Santa Monica, I encountered an older couple, the huband for which was wearing a T-shirt that said “WWII” in big letters. They claimed to have already done the survey online, but it didn’t take him long to volunteer the fact that he was in the Battle of the Bulge. I thanked him for his service, and upon saying goodbye to them, he said, “Hey, thank you for what you are doing. You know what you are? You are a frontline worker!” Wow – maybe I was a frontline worker! Totally made my day.
- The people who know they’ve been caught not responding to it yet but REALLY don’t want to do the survey with you. This person was the most common of the bunch who answered their doors. They aren’t unkind. But instead of taking the 7-8 minutes with me, they without fail ask if I can just give them the Web address where they can do it online. And I did have such a sheet, seen on my clipboard in the accompanying photo. And yes, their cases would end up on my roster again days later and I had to remind several people to use the sheet I gave them and get the survey done. I can assure you, people didn’t like to be nagged (so do the damn survey and I’ll stop coming back!)
- The unusual amount of people NOT home. Most people I tried didn’t answer or weren’t home. Where are they? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people! When I started this job, I certainly expected to find most people home and I thought I would be interviewing hundreds of people. So not the case.
- The people who clearly have THE most important jobs in the world. These people are not nice. They can’t BELIEVE you’ve come to their home in the middle of the workday. Don’t I know they have a (REALLY IMPORTANT) job they’re in the middle of?! They are very curt, and I was lucky if any of them said to me “leave the sheet with the website on it.” People talking through intercoms were of course even meaner and more cowardly.
- The people on Zoom calls. Also very terse, these folks are maybe 2% nicer but always made sure they showed me their screen and all the people on it. Again, it’s as if they thought I should have known better. Why did you answer the door?
- The gruff looking but surprisingly nice guy. I encountered several “tough, no nonsense guys in their late 50s” types who at first glance I thought would be mean but turned out to be quite nice, even if it was just to say, “I already did the survey online” or “I completed it with some other guy just the other day.”
- The people who see you and know you see them, but still aren’t answering that door. Yep. They reminded me of the times my dog would look away from me when she had done something wrong, thinking I could no longer see her.
- The people who don’t live there but are for some reason … there. I encountered several people who apologized for not being the official resident, with many of them saying, “I don’t live her, I just work here.” You do? You work in this apartment? Aren’t we all supposed to be working from home right now and NOT at our colleague’s houses? When I asked one guy if his colleague who lived there was home, he said, “Oh, I don’t work with the guy who lives here, he just let’s me come work here.” Huh?! What on Earth is happening?! Pandemic, people!
The job ended abruptly for me after my shift on Monday, September 21. I wouldn’t know it until the next morning, however. You see, for about a year now, my left big toe has been increasingly bothering me. I often experience sharp pain, or other days throbbing, constant pain. I didn’t really do anything about it for six months and continued to go on brisk walks with Erin during Bizarro World 2020. Finally, in June, I went and saw my primary care physician who X-rayed the toe and tested for Gout of all things. Nothing. He told me to take anti-inflammatories and for some reason I can’t remember now, that seemed enough to satisfy me at the time. So off I went. By early August, before my Census work began, the toe was much worse, and the pain was starting to encroach further back onto my foot. The Census work was great for getting 10,000 steps a day, but of course exacerbated the whole problem. I couldn’t mess around anymore. So, on Thursday the 17th, I went to a podiatrist here in Santa Monica. Almost immediately upon bending my foot and toes around to uncomfortable levels, the podiatrist determined I was suffering from arthritis, and it would only get worse. He said some things about carpals and metacarpals rubbing against one another and put a temporary orthotic underneath the liner inside my shoe. It didn’t work. The next day, while on a six-hour shift, I felt the usual pain within two hours of being on my feet. So, on the morning of the 22nd, he performed a Protein Rich Plasma (PRP) injection into the spot where he could see the arthritis on an ultrasound. Anytime I leave the house over the next two weeks, I must wear a boot, and I’m supposed to stay off my foot as much as possible as the PRP does its thing. I hope this works!
The procedure, which isn’t covered by ANY insurance plan no matter how good, cost as much as I probably made working for the Census these last four weeks. I was angry about that at first, but my wife wisely got me back into gratitude by saying, “You needed to do this anyway, so thank goodness you HAD the Census work.” She’s absolutely right. Look, I didn’t invent anything or cure a disease, but it was a good feeling for several weeks to know I at least had some temporary work that was a benefit to my country and the L.A. region. In the end, thank you, U.S. Census Bureau!