R Scott Okamoto
The Last Census Post...Forever
After finishing part 3 of the Census ordeal, I was surprised at how stressed I felt as I relived the experience. After I came home from Bakersfield, my titanium molar implant started hurting whenever I ate. My dentist, who is also my wife, told me to come in so she could tighten it. What she discovered was that I had broken the titanium away from the bone because I was clenching my teeth so violently in my sleep. Sleep was difficult during these few weeks, but apparently I was chomping down pretty hard when I did fall asleep. So, whatever money I made during the 5 weeks of work, I broke my titanium implant.
Before I left Bakersfield, I asked my cool CFS what I needed to do to get transferred back to LA. He attempted to convince me to stay in Bakersfield for one more week, but I wouldn’t even consider it. At the end of my week, I noticed my case list was starting to look a lot more like the ones in LA with mostly dead cases with multiple visits in the case notes. My CFS told me to call the Pasadena office to make sure I was transferred back. Cool.
I got home and made the call. A couple of days went by and I didn’t hear anything. My Census phone gave me cases in Bakersfield for a couple of days, so I called again. I was told they were having trouble transferring people back to LA. I got a text and an email saying there were more travel opportunities in Vegas and the Inland Empire. Great. Red states.
But I figured after a week off, I could do a week in the Inland Empire, where it would be 115 degrees every day. I emailed back, saying I wanted to go to the IE, and the CFS said he would put me on the list. Having already done a travel job, he said, made it a sure thing.
The week ended, and I didn’t hear back. The travel CFS told me I didn’t exist in the LA system, so he couldn’t put me on the travel team. I was livid. I called the regional office and demanded answers. A despondent old man told me he was sorry and that they were working on it.
So, I had the whole week off. And most of the following week.
And then on Thursday the following week, I got a text from my new CFS. I was back in the system after 12 days. Yay.
I was sent to La Crescenta way up in the hills. And it was the worst. Every case had 10+ notes saying “hostile” or “does not want to be bothered.” I got yelled at a few times an hour.
One house had multiple shouting matches documented, so I turned on my voice recorder on my phone and knocked. A woman’s voice descended from an upstairs window. “What do you want?”
I shouted my census script politely, a would-be federal Romeo to her isolationist, conspiracy theory Juliet.
“Yeah,” she shouted down. “Did you happen to bring someone to take care of my special needs child?”
“No,” I said back.
“Well, how the hell can you people expect me to do this? Go away!”
I pointed out that we could do the census questionnaire just like how we were talking. That was a mistake. She shouted and cursed. I told her I would leave a Notice of Visit (NOV) and walked away. My heart was beating. Being yelled at, to me, is unsettling.
I drove farther up the mountain to places where houses were far apart and up at the end of windy, narrow roads. Great. Hill people.
One house was a side house next to a big mansion. There was a small yacht in the driveway between the mansion and the side house. I knocked.
A white man glared at me, and as I started my thing, he stepped out at me and yelled, “No! No! No! Nooooooo!”
My heart was already racing from the previous house, so I didn’t back down.
“Is this a bad time, sir?”
He just kept shouting, “No! No!”
“Can I answer any questions about the census?”
“No! No! No!”
He started to wave his arms as if to shoo me away.
“So, do you live here alone?” I calmly asked.
Each time he yelled louder, “No! No! No!”
He finally went back in and slammed the door.
My heart was beating so hard, I could hear it in my ears. I just stood there, wanting him to come back out, so I could yell back. I wanted to tell him to fuck off. I wanted to call him a fucking moron for not understanding what the census was. I wanted him, an older skinny fucker, to take a swing at me, so I could beat the shit out of him in self-defense. Yeah, this was the low point. Something in me was broken by my experiences.
I stood at his door and started to enter case notes that the man was an asshole.
The door opened again, and the man looked at me as if to say, “you’re still here?”
I stood my ground. “I’m just making a note about this address. For the government.”
He looked like he was going to say something, but he just slammed the door again.
My hands were shaking as I walked back to my car. I called my CFS and told her about the incident. Unlike my other CFS in Pasadena, she was sympathetic. “That sounds awful,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
I went home, made dinner for the family, went to bed, and slept badly.
Saturday, I went back to that neighborhood. The one case I completed was way up the mountain in a small grouping of houses. The house had been visited a few times, but no contact had been made. This made the address a dream case compared to the others with horror stories. In La Crescenta, all through the neighborhoods I was driving in, there were lots of yellow flags indicating “dangerous” addresses. Given how high the bar is for labeling addresses as “dangerous,” they had to be really bad.
But at this house, I parked and saw a pickup truck pull up. An Asian American guy got out with some groceries and went in. Gotcha.
I ran up to the still open door and knocked on the door frame.
A nice Korean American man came out, sheepishly, and did the interview.
It was the last completed address of my time with the Census.
On the way back down the hill, I went to a street with a bunch of addresses listed. One confusing one said, “The side house at XXX address.”
I saw a couple of men standing in the driveway between the main house and the side house. As I walked up, I waved at the men. They saw me and turned to walk up the driveway between the houses. I followed them in and identified myself. They said nothing, so I asked if the side house was occupied.
The man just said in a cold, eastern European accent, “You’re on my property.”
I apologized and said I was with the census and was just verifying the small house.
He again said, “You’re on my property. I didn’t say you could come on my property.”
I asked again if the house was occupied, and he said it wasn’t, but that I was not welcome on his property. There was a dead serious menacing tone to his voice. An implication of bad things if I didn’t leave.
He reminded me of some Armenian gangsters who used to live across the street from me who were once raided by no less than three branches of government law enforcement. Unsmiling, cold, menacing people.
Both men were staring me down. No matter what I said, they kept reminding me I was on their property and I was not welcome.
I got the hell out of there and called it a day.
My CFS texted and asked if I needed any supplies. I was almost out of some forms, so I met her at the park around the corner from my house.
She was extremely sympathetic to my bad two days. She had never worked as an enumerator, but her roommate was one, and she had similar horror stories to mine. I told her I was thinking of quitting, and she totally understood.
There were wildfires raging all around the area, and the air was thick with smoke. We were advised by the Los Angeles County health department to stay indoors, so I asked my CFS what the Census was saying. She said she had brought that up with her superiors, both in Pasadena and regionally. She shook her head and said, “Basically, they don’t give a shit about you guys. They want you out there, no matter what.”
The next week, I was sent to an area near Echo Park. Of course, dozens of horror cases. My CFS told me it was the end, so to just try to find proxies to interview, but case notes said even neighbors were hostile.
I drove around, trying to find parking anywhere near the addresses. If you know Echo Park, especially in the hill areas, you know the streets are narrow and lined with endless cars. I would park, walk a quarter of a mile through the smoke to the address and knock on empty or silent houses.
After an afternoon of fruitless driving and walking in smoky air, I went back to my car, looked at my case list, and said out loud, “Fuck it. I’m done.”
Following census protocols, I wrote a letter of resignation, packed up all my forms and phone in the census bag and went down to the Pasadena office.
Through a thick glass window with no opening, I asked about the status of my bonus. I had received a $100 bonus for my first week of work, but nothing since in subsequent paychecks. The guy pretended not to hear me. He asked if I had asked my CFS’s about my hours and completed cases, and I told him I had and they had told me to ask the Pasadena office. He said he had no way of looking it up. Naturally.
I turned in everything, got a receipt for the equipment and was officially done.
A few weeks later, I had received all my paychecks. There was one more $100 bonus for my week in Bakersfield, but nothing for the second week. By my calculations, I had crushed it that week, completing almost double the number of cases I needed and working exactly 25 hours. Without my census phone, I had no way of contacting specific people like my CFS’s, regional managers, or the CFS hotline, which was always useless anyway. I called the number on the Census website and got voicemails. Without that 2nd week of bonus, I wouldn’t get $100 for the week and $500 for the three week bonus. I was out $600.
I had already ordered a new guitar for $650, so I sold more gear to compensate. I figured, $200 bonus money towards the guitar would have to do.
Some writers at Reveal contacted me after I responded to a call for stories of census workers. I corresponded with one of the writers and told him my stories and all about the bonus issue. He said he had heard the same thing from several others. He must have alerted Census people because a good two months after my last paycheck, I got notice that $600 had been direct deposited, designated as Census bonus pay.
So I got the whole $800 in addition to all the regular $25 an hour pay.
But at what cost? I had banged a titanium implant out of my head. I had felt real depression and anxiety. Quitting helped a great deal, but I still feel my heart race whenever I drive through neighborhoods I walked. The gates, the doors, the driveways, all make my heart race.
On reddit, there are a couple of Census worker threads, and it helped to read through them. Many people feel the way I do, that this job was the worst thing we’ve ever had to do. But others were more cavalier about it. They talked about just turning off their feelings and relishing in the abuse they got. To them, it wasn’t personal. Just part of the fun of the job. I could never be that person, I guess. When someone glares at me and yells at me, I feel it. For the unfeeling, carefree census workers, enumerating is a series of adventures where they figure out how to break into gated yards, bypass security systems, and trick respondents and proxies into divulging just enough information to count as a completed questionnaire. I did all those things, and I hated every second of it.
Finally, working for the census is to work directly inside the broken federal government bureaucracy. Like so many other industries, education, health care, etc, the enumerator is the front line of important work and the most expendable and least respected part. The administrators have no idea what it’s like to be enumerators, and they do not care. They sent us out into dangerous smokey air while other industries advised their employees to stay indoors. They tell us to go to dangerous houses. They send non-Spanish speakers into latinx neighborhoods. And, they send Japanese Americans from Pasadena into rural parts of Bakersfield. This, alone, tells you a lot about the Census bureau.
But, given the political battles being waged around issues of the census, I feel good about doing my part to get people counted in California. Trump tried to mess with the count by not counting non-citizens, but one thing I will say about the otherwise inept Department of the Census: they take counting, as defined by the Constitution, very seriously. I worked a total of four weeks, and it felt much longer. But goddamit, I counted hundreds of non-respondents in service of getting representation in congress and federal funding for my state.
A friend in Idaho told me there was a republican movement in his city to not participate in the Census, which made me laugh. It would only hurt their state.
And as of today, 1/19/2021, the head of the Census had resigned because he was accused of trying to follow republican efforts to short the counts in blue states.
But politics aside, I will try to remember the people I connected with, whether across the street from my house or in the middle of a cornfield in Bakersfield. If nothing else, I know where to get a free kitten.