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Increase in Census hiring could help lower jobless claims

March 27, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

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U.S. jobless claims jumped to 3.3 million this week, quadrupling the previous record and highlighting what is likely just the beginning of the economic devastation the COVID-19 virus will leave in its wake. 

The change is drastic: Just two weeks ago the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low, and it comes as at least 30 states have issued orders to temporarily shut down some businesses deemed nonessential. Unemployment numbers are expected to get worse as “essential” businesses continue to feel the burden and prepare for layoffs of their own. 

But the increase in unemployment comes as the Census prepares to hire and onboard at least 600,000 temporary employees, which could positively impact job reports and provide much-needed sources of income to those who have seen their employment status impacted by the pandemic. 

Census workers, much like postal workers, are considered critical and are allowed to work during government-mandated social distancing and quarantine periods.

During a press call this week, Census officials announced that they would suspend all onboarding of new employees until at least April 1, but that they were keeping their hiring website open and had received 2.8 million applications, or about 8,000 new applications each day. 

“We are urging people to consider applying as we need more temporary employees than originally planned for,” said Tim Olson, associate director for field operations at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

As the Census retains its goal of accounting for every person residing in the country by Dec. 31, 2020, directors also have to grapple with delays in processing mail-in and online applications as well as door-to-door efforts in the wake of the outbreak. 

One way to get that done would be to dip into the Census Bureau’s $2 billion contingency fund to hire more workers. “If we bring on larger numbers of people and start later that might help our completion time,” said Olson. “We are currently operating in one shift, but we now know that if we have to delay we can [ramp up to] two or three shifts in a shorter time frame.”

Olson also said the bureau plans to over-hire to make up for employees who may fall ill from the virus or decide not to fully onboard for fear of working door-to-door.

“It’s very possible if not likely that when it comes time to actually onboard people into a job there could be a greater loss of individuals because of fear,” he said. “We’re monitoring that closely and will be over-hiring in all areas.”

Albert Fontenot, the associate director for decennial programs at the U.S. Census Bureau, told reporters that he had the authority to tap into the contingency fund and that he was willing to do so to bring on additional employees. 

The onboarding process takes between six and seven weeks and includes background checks, fingerprinting, and training, which will now take place online to accommodate social distancing. 

The pay for Census workers varies by location. In New York, Census workers make between $25 and $28 an hour. In Louisiana, where the cost of living is lower, Census workers can earn between $14 in rural areas and $20 in urban areas like New Orleans. The majority of positions last for several weeks, with work ending as the curve is projected to flatten and service jobs come back.

“It is reasonable to expect that some, perhaps many, but not all, of these jobs will come back once we venture back into public,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, of service jobs. 

In 2010, the year of the last decennial Census, the bureau created about 750,000 temporary jobs in total and knocked unemployment down by nearly half a percent, a welcome boost to an economy still recovering from the Great Recession. 

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