How the Coronavirus Is Affecting the Census


Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 27, 2020
map of the United States with silhouettes of faces

​Even the census is under the cloud of the coronavirus. The U.S. Census Bureau, however, is still trying to get everyone to participate in the once-a-decade population count as it makes numerous adjustments in response to the pandemic. Employers and census partners, like the Society for Human Resource Management, can help amplify that message by encouraging workers to respond to the census online, by mail or by phone.

"It's important to recognize that with all the uncertainty and concern that many employees and customers are likely feeling about their own health and economic security, or that of their loved ones, this is likely a sensitive time for employers to communicate about the census," said Robert Kueppers, a retired senior partner, global regulatory and public policy, with Deloitte LLP in Sarasota, Fla., and a trustee of the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board in Arlington, Va.

"But the pandemic also helps highlight how critical the information provided by the census is to communities and governments as they prepare their response to this crisis," he said. "Employers may have a unique ability to reach employees and customers with the message of the importance of their participation in the census at a time when it never has been more difficult for the Census Bureau to get that message out without their assistance."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Census Adjustments

The Census Bureau has suspended field operations and put hiring and onboarding on pause until at least April 1. The agency's onboarding process involves fingerprinting of future employees as part of the security background screening process, said Tim Olson, the Census Bureau's associate director for field operations. The bureau still is accepting job applications online.

The agency "will adjust census survey operations as necessary," Olson said. "It's never been easier to respond on your own."

Al Fontenot, the bureau's associate director of decennial operations, noted that temporary adjustments have been made to operations at the national processing center in Jeffersonville, Ind., to keep employees safe. Right now, the bureau is encouraging citizens to respond online.

So far, 18.6 million households have responded online, by mail or by phone, with the majority responding online, according to Michael Cook, chief of the Census Bureau's public information office.

Most people should have received their census forms in the mail by now. Census takers aren't scheduled to count those who don't respond until May 28, he added. Those in-person checks will need to be completed by Aug. 14.

Olson said the bureau has extended 600,000 job offers for census taker positions and may need to "overhire" for expected greater-than-normal attrition due to the coronavirus.

"Even though many things may be uncertain, one thing isn't: It's important everyone respond," Fontenot said.

Importance of the Census

The pandemic "underscores the need for census data," Fontenot pointed out. "Census results inform planning and funding for hospitals in emergency preparedness."

Additionally, many government programs use census information to determine how to allocate huge sums of money.

Decision-makers reference census data in deciding how to distribute roughly $1.5 trillion in federal resources every year, said Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, deputy director of ReadyNation at the Council for a Strong America in Washington, D.C. These funds help to strengthen communities, businesses and the economy.

"This money goes for things like good schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as roads," said Bill O'Hare, President of O'Hare Data and Demographic Service LLC in Cape Charles, Va. "Those are the kinds of things that can often attract good employees to a location."

Employers also may look at census data to determine where to put stores and factories, said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Moreover, "it is not overstating matters to say that the census is the foundation of fair political representation since the population count serves as the basis for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives and drawing district boundaries," Kueppers said. "It is also used to draw district lines for state legislative seats and other elected positions, including city councils, school boards and some municipal offices."

But the pandemic will make it hard to count all Americans and deliver the census data to Congress and the president by the end of the year as is required. "Some people will be more afraid to answer the door [to census takers] with the pandemic than otherwise," Shierholz said. And an increased reliance on online responses might skew census results against those who don't have Web access, she cautioned.

Silver Lining

A silver lining is that, even before the pandemic was a consideration, the Census Bureau had invested in making the census easier for people to complete on their own, Kueppers said.

"Getting out that message and really encouraging as many people as possible to respond to the census—online, over the phone or by mail—will be critical to reducing the workload later for census takers following up with nonrespondents," he said. 


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.