SALT LAKE CITY — The 2020 census kicked off this week, marking 230 years of data collection and tracking demographics in the U.S.
Though COVID-19 fears are rising in Utah, workers are still being trained for the job of counting the state’s population.
“Our operations are going to continue,” said Coralys Ruiz, media specialist for the U.S Census Bureau. “We have to conduct the 2020 census and we already have procedures built in when these type of situations happen.”
Ruiz acknowledged that people might not want to answer the door if the virus continues to spread. In the case of an epidemic, the bureau’s operational plan instructs census workers to drop off the questionnaires at homes for people to respond on their own, according to the Associated Press.
The U.S. Census Bureau did a “soft launch” Monday and made the questionnaire available online, although most Americans won’t be able to answer until the bureau begins mailing forms on Thursday.
Recipients can either mail back with their information, use the code on the form to answer the questions online or call the bureau.
Then in May, census workers will go door-to-door to households that didn’t initially respond, collecting data that the federal government will ultimately use to decide where to spend $1.5 trillion and how many congressional seats a state gets.
Susan Sharp, manager of the Salt Lake City area census office, said the Utah census is moving ahead as planned.
“We’re still hiring and training for nonresponse follow-up,” Sharp said. “A lot can happen in two months.”
Regardless of what happens with COVID-19, Ruiz and other census officials are encouraging respondents to enter their data online.
“Either way, we are still encouraging people to self-respond, to get online or call us to complete the paper,” said Ruiz.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 80% of households will first receive notices on how to answer the census online or by phone. Twenty percent of households, specifically those in areas with a high senior population or low internet connectivity, will receive a paper questionnaire to mail back to the bureau.
Bureau officials hope this method will allow all Americans, even the less tech-savvy, to participate, although the questionnaire will still provide information on how to answer remotely.
And in certain instances, like collecting data on tribal lands or neighborhoods that use postal boxes, the bureau wont mail anything and will instead rely solely on census workers hand-delivering the questionnaire.
According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report, roughly 30% of Americans in rural areas and 35% on tribal lands don’t have access to fixed broadband internet. Ruiz said relying on the physical, paper questionnaire — a tried-and-true method dating back to 1790 — is an effective way to reach rural populations.
With offices in Orem and Salt Lake City, the U.S. Census Bureau is still looking to fill over 3,000 jobs in Utah, some of which pay $17 an hour. Full- and part-time jobs are open for Utahns regardless of experience.
Ruiz said the first thing employees do for training is take an oath to ensure any data collected remains confidential.
“If we break the oath ... we can either go to federal prison for up to five years, or we can also get up to a $250,000 fine,” she said, acknowledging the fears and misconceptions some Americans have as to what the government does with census data.
“We will not share any data with any government organizations,” said Ruiz. This includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the National Security Agency and the FBI.
“This will affect our schools, our police departments, our roads,” she told the Deseret News. “It’s really important that everybody responds to the questionnaire.”