Down for the Count
I worked for the 2020 United States Census and it was fucking weird. At this anonymous, totally nondescript commercial office at an undisclosed location in New York City, a whiteboard in the front of the main room cheerfully though somewhat inexplicably read, “The census is [number] days away — congratulations!” (Thanks?) Shortly after we swore a very real oath to the Constitution on day one, the first of many lectures from management was about the imperative of secrecy. Don’t tell anyone where the office is, don’t take pictures of anything in the office or the building it’s in, don’t reveal personal information about census subjects, and — illegally, I’m pretty sure, in case anyone still cares about that sort of thing — don’t breathe a word to anybody, ever, about anything that happens in the office. Not casual conversations, not working conditions; confidentiality is more lax at Area 51. We were told that we would “go to jail” if we strayed from this directive, and were also once told that we would go to jail if we spilled coffee at work, evidently a lesser-known federal offense. They reminded us often that our social media accounts were supposedly being monitored. I imagined Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau Director at the time, appreciating my witty Twitter presence.
We were also explicitly forbidden to discuss “politics” at work, and threatened with swift disciplinary action if we were caught doing so. This was in order to “maintain good cheer” and always struck me as being pleasantly on the nose for a government workplace. Once, my joke about white men was interpreted as an endorsement of their absolute supremacy, and when I tried to clarify what I meant, a nearby supervisor shushed me for talking politics. Another coworker then said, “We don’t see color here.” I said, “Seriously?” and got shushed again. In this way, good cheer was thoroughly maintained, although the (Italian-American, he’ll have you know) manager who spent a lot of time loudly shit talking immigrants seemed not to share this priority.
Neither did Michael (whose name, along with all others from here on out, has been changed). Michael was young and started at the same time I did. During training, he bought mace on our lunch break, and showed it off to everyone when we resumed. Then one day, apropos of nothing, he asked me if I was Jewish. Nothing good ever follows that question, and when I reluctantly nodded, he told me for at least the third time that he was Polish, and then launched into a lengthy, spirited, and utterly bizarre defense of the actions of the Polish state during the Holocaust. I told him to go away, but he was so persistent (and loud) that the onslaught didn’t end until a supervisor came and scolded us both for distracting the other staff. We didn’t speak again until two days later when he suddenly asked me on a date. I turned him down but totally failed to make a Hannah Arendt joke, which I still regret.
It was maybe another month before Michael was abruptly fired for locking another employee in the stairwell and trying to force her to do heroin with him. She managed to get out and was understandably shaken but physically okay. His termination was then delayed by several harrowing minutes because the office manager, Danielle, who had to make the official decision, was busy teaching my supervisor — an older guy I’ll call Terrence who was demonstrably senile and vindictively defensive about it — how to save an Excel file, again. “Supervisors” at the census are like most everywhere else, on a slightly higher pay scale that corresponds not at all to any particular ability, even the most basic that their title might suggest. Alan, the IT supervisor, was among several people to whom I once demonstrated keyboard shortcuts, which none of them had known about. He was absolutely floored by Control+F. Every time I asked him for tech help, he told me to Google it.
Terrence was a fun enemy to have. I took it in stride when, in response to my laughing about a dumb security question on a webinar, he made it a point to explain to me what security questions are. He did not extend the same courtesy to me when I later explained to him that, if he was trying to book event spaces for a training that required three consecutive days, it made little sense to request only the weekend at those spaces. Weekends, I ventured gently, are usually two days long. He struggled to understand most tasks involving the printer, the internet, or relaying the information directly in front of him to anybody, but he barked angrily whenever offered help or correction. He eventually refused to speak to me at all until he was scolded by a manager who explained that, as my supervisor, he had no choice. I loved him.
This kind of pervasive incompetence is not exactly singular in workplaces, but here speaks to a noteworthy aspect of the 2020 Census: its hiring apparatus, which was, certainly by accident and clearly not always with positive individual results, incredibly egalitarian. People who wanted the gig filled out a short application online and waited to be called for an interview — this could be immediate or it could take months, but who got called and when was determined almost entirely by computer lottery. There was a system that picked out certain “qualifications” from the applications and shuffled them around a bit in terms of priority, but even those qualifications were generally just whether applicants lived in a certain zip code or knew how to drive, standing in stark contrast to what is generally required to get any other job that would pay nearly as well. Even would-be supervisors just had to check a box saying they wanted to be a supervisor and answer a few extra multiple choice questions. Working at the census office was decently lucrative and comfortable, and required no academic degree, no professional experience of any kind, no particular skills, and only the most basic English language ability. The telephone interview was quick and easy, consisting entirely of yes or no questions to which the desired answer was obvious. Granted, when we were hiring the door-to-door census takers, there was one question that asked if the person would be willing to work in a “diverse neighborhood,” and several people I interviewed either equivocated or immediately said no. But if you’re the kind of person who fails the yes/no “are you racist” question on the easiest job interview ever, maybe egalitarianism isn’t for you. All of this is, in its awkward way, a kind of cool reprieve from the ever-increasing overspecialization of all but the most unpleasant, undercompensated labor in the United States.
Things continued like this for a number of months, in the kind of sitcom fashion that really goes to 11 when nobody in management ever knows the answer to even the most basic question about how to execute any simple administrative task. The question then takes days or weeks to be filtered up through innumerable levels of opaque government bureaucracy, from one of the thousands of local 2020 field offices to the Bureau headquarters in Maryland, and then the answer takes just as long to filter back down. In the meantime, staff were given numerous sets of nonsensical provisional instructions which always contradicted each other, leaving us unable to do anything at all a lot of the time. Some joked, “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Census way!” I got really good at the Times crossword.
For an office so concerned with security, the Census was pretty low tech. It wasn’t just that the building itself was falling apart, with frequent impassable floods in the lobby from burst pipes, elevator outages, and malfunctioning heat. (The government: they’re just like us! Their landlord doesn’t fix shit either!) We were only allowed to use Internet Explorer, on an outdated version of Microsoft Windows. The phones had such poor connection quality that we often couldn’t hear the person on the other end at all, and we were eventually prohibited from using the keypad lock on the front door because doing so would drain the battery. I guess this was kind of understandable, since whenever the landlord came to replace the battery he would inevitably scream at Danielle about one thing or another in front of the staff, sometimes calling her a bitch to really drive his point home. But it did render kind of moot the two dueling printed signs posted next to each other on the inside of the door. One read, “Please remember to push door close.” [sic] The other, “Please pull door closed.” I once asked the guy who made them about his artistic vision, and he said one had been designed for the outside of the door. When they told him he wasn’t allowed to post things on that side, he figured people going out still needed to get the message.
The publicly recognized onset of Coronavirus in New York City in March was a confusing time at the office. Due to the opacity of any actual decision-making process, increasingly anxious questions from staff about when or if the Census might take the issue seriously were met at every turn with the same answer we got from management about everything else, which was that they didn’t know, they didn’t know who knew, they would get back to us. There was no meeting, or email, or public acknowledgement of what was happening at all. In the meantime, the water in the bathroom cut out frequently, sometimes for whole days. As the pandemic took hold, we couldn’t wash our hands. Even for an office where the fire evacuation map showed the wrong floor plan, this was a pretty egregious safety hazard. Potential new hires asked about Covid precautions, and reasonably turned down job offers when we had nothing to tell them. For their part, some of my coworkers reacted to the developing news in curious ways. Alan took the precaution of avoiding any subway line that connects to either of the city’s two airports, reasoning that these trains would more likely expose him to travelers from Asia. Another supervisor swore off sushi indefinitely; she figured Japanese fish were probably the same as Chinese fish and would therefore make her sick. Panic grew.
Absent any kind of HR mechanism, I eventually gave up and called the regional office to ask what was going on, the number for which I found online. I declined to provide my name or the specific office where I worked, explicitly citing concerns about retaliation. The woman I spoke to provided no information, and told me to ask my office manager again. Twenty minutes later, I got an angry email from Danielle — the regional supervisor I’d spoken to had looked me up in the employee database by my phone number and told her about our conversation. The email warned me not to go over her head again or I would be fired. We also received threats after a few census employees across the country spoke to the media anonymously, reporting parallel frustrations in other offices and noting that some workers were already sick, and we were reminded that we would face legal consequences if we did the same. It was a totally unenforceable threat, but since we weren’t allowed to talk about anything political and never given any guidelines for what that even meant, my coworkers shied away from any effort to discuss the situation among ourselves.
Non-managerial 2020 Census workers occupied a weird legal space defined by some fine print in federal labor code. In theory, all federal employees, whether full-time or part-time, are entitled to accrue paid sick leave. But because this specific class of worker is both hourly and temporary — no matter how long someone worked for the 2020 Census, we were technically only hired for eight weeks at a time, and then subject to contract renewal — we were not entitled to any paid time off. We also could only take three unpaid sick days at a time, a policy which did not change in light of the CDC Covid-19 safety guidelines, eventually badly xeroxed and taped to a corner filing cabinet. The guidelines underscored the importance of quarantining for 14 days if exposed to Covid, which we were not permitted to do.
After nearly a week of total radio silence from management while New York shut down around us, the entire 50-something person staff was crowded together into the office’s small conference room. Danielle read aloud from a printout of the one page CDC guidelines, which strongly advised against lots of people being crowded together in small rooms, and then refused to take questions and sent everyone back to their desks. She suggested that, if we were concerned, we should spend our own money on sanitizing wipes for the office. It was well into the following week when we got an email announcing that the office would be closed — “for 14 days,” it insisted, as the city’s morgues neared capacity. Later in the summer, the census reopened, sending enumerators out to follow up in person with households who had not responded on their own. They carried census-issued tablets with new, untested software, which was soon found often not to work.
The 2020 census was a shitshow from top to bottom, mostly for political reasons well documented elsewhere. But there’s also some quieter, heavily predictable irony in the disconnect between an institution whose entire purpose is to receive and publicize information and its workers who are fiercely prohibited from doing either, even as their lives may depend on it. A few days before the city’s official shelter in place order, when the office was still open but I had stopped going in, I talked to a reporter who asked me to get a second source from the census to verify what I’d told him, off-record. I called the one kid who seemed nice whose phone number I had. He didn’t want to get involved — he was happy, he said, that they’d finally gotten a single bottle of hand sanitizer for the office.
Hung prominently in the office was a custom 12-point inspirational poster, entitled “Management Keys for Success.” It got good about halfway through.
5. Trust, but verify.
6. Never lull yourself into a false sense of security.
7. This isn’t rocket science.