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Wanted: Half a million workers to help count people for the census

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The Census Bureau is ramping up recruiting in a push to hire up to half a million temporary workers for this year’s count.

Census Director Steven Dillingham said this week that his agency is hoping hundreds of thousands more people will submit applications. So far, about 2.4 million have applied.

“We would still like to get to 2.67 million (applications),” Dillingham told reporters Tuesday. “We’re confident we’ll do it, and we’ll do it in short order.”

Why are so many temporary workers needed for the 2020 census? Getting a complete and accurate tally of every resident in the United States is a lot harder than it sounds.

The decennial count determines how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed and the number of representatives each state gets in Congress.

The first count of the 2020 census began last month in Toksook Bay, Alaska, and other remote parts of that state. The census will officially roll out throughout the United States in mid-March, when homes across the country will receive invitations to respond.

Officials estimate that about 60% of people will reply to questionnaires in the mail, on the phone or online. Census-takers will need to go door-to-door to get responses from the rest — and they only have a few months to do it.

“That turns into millions of addresses that we follow up in person. … It’s about 60 million addresses in the projection,” said Tim Olson, the US Census Bureau’s associate director for field operations.

The timeframe for the tally is tight. From May to July, census takers will visit homes that haven’t responded. By December 31, 2020, the US Census Bureau is required by law to report population counts from the new census to the President.

A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office warned that the Census was “behind in meeting recruiting goals,” saying that the pace of applications could make it tough for the bureau to complete census operations on time. But speaking with reporters at an event in Washington this week, top Census officials said recruiting efforts are on track.

Most temporary census jobs are anticipated to last for at least several weeks, according to the Census Bureau. The largest number of openings are for census takers, but the bureau is also hiring for other temporary positions, including clerks and office operations supervisors.

This isn’t the first time officials have set out to hire a massive temporary workforce to help with the count. But there’s been a notable shift from the situation Census recruiters faced in 2010, Olson told CNN.

“We were going through an incredibly difficult economic downturn, and so we ended up recruiting 3.9 million people,” he said. “And we did that with virtually no advertising.”

This time, Olson said, the economy is in much better shape. And recruiters have had to intensify their efforts. They also increased the pay for census-takers in most US counties.

Pay rates vary by location, he said, ranging between $13.50 and $30 an hour.

The part-time census-taker positions are ideally suited for people who already have another job, he said. Olson, who first joined the census as a temporary worker during the 1990 count, said recruiting efforts this year are paying off.

Of the 2.4 million people who’ve applied so far, about 22% of applicants are bilingual, he said. More than 450 languages and dialects are represented in that group, Olson said.

And that’s no accident.

Census officials have been reaching out to local communities across the country and asking for help recruiting people who speak multiple languages, Olson said, “because our country’s…language diversity is continuing to grow.”

“When we hire people, we will hire them in their own neighborhood,” he said, “and we need to make sure that they are able to communicate accurately with the people they come in contact with.”

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