Colorado's Low Unemployment Puts Strain On 2020 Census Hiring
Potential recruits were everywhere inside the bustling food court at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Daniel Barr, the area census office manager for Northern Colorado, stood in front of a table covered in neat stacks of fliers, hoping to find the people he needed to carry out the mission of the country’s largest peacetime movement organization: the 2020 census.
“Who wants to make a thousand dollars?” Barr called out to a group of students passing by.
Most glanced down at their phones or adjusted their earbuds as they hopped in line at the nearby Starbucks. Barr, unfazed, moved on.
In Northern Colorado alone, the Census Bureau hopes to recruit 2,500 workers by April 1, the day the count officially begins. Barr’s office has found 1,500 so far, leaving 1,000 left to go.
But the bureau has a new challenge: its peak recruiting period, which runs February through March, also happens to coincide with Colorado’s lowest unemployment rate in 44 years.
Last month, the state’s Department of Labor and Employment announced the rate had dipped to 2.5%. Barr, who joined the bureau last fall, said it’s made finding good candidates in certain parts of the state more difficult.
“We have some areas that are hurting,” Barr said.
In Weld County, where the local unemployment rate sits at 2.3%, the bureau still needs about 500 workers. Barr said the need for Spanish speakers is especially high.
“500 might sound like a low number,” he said. “But we need every 18-year-old and above that’s interested in making a little extra money to apply.”
The census determines how much federal funding Colorado and other states get over the next decade for things like public education and road construction. While the bureau expects a majority of residents to participate via mail or online, it needs enumerators to track down and count residents in households that don’t respond.
Even a slight undercount could have long-lasting repercussions for local governments, Barr said.
“Let’s say every man, woman and child is worth $1,500,” he said. “Over the next 10 years, that county is going to receive $15,000. How does that impact all the services that our community receives? Everything boils down to that impact level.”
To help find potential candidates to carry out the count, the Census Bureau has launched a massive digital campaign, put information booths in local libraries and showed up to nearly every hiring fair on college campuses throughout the region, Barr said.
At the CU hiring fair in early February, he hoped to at least recruit a couple new people.
“We want to expose as many people to the census as we can,” he said. “If that’s one person, great, if it’s 100, phenomenal.”
Holding a fresh slice of cheese pizza, Ku Thomas, a fifth-year senior, lingered by the recruiting table just long enough to grab a business card.
“I already kinda got a part-time job I’m kind of committed to and I’m busy with school,” Thomas said. “I’d be open to it if I’m here during the summer.”
When told the count happened in the spring, Thomas looked disappointed.
“Oh, okay then,” he said, walking away.
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The Census Bureau says it’s on track to recruit all the people it needs to cover some parts of the state, like Boulder and Larimer counties. In some places, like rural Morgan County, it's already achieved its goals.
But as of Feb. 10, at least 14 counties, mostly rural, were at just half or below recruitment goals. Eagle County was at 28.5%. Grand County was at 35.8%. Routt County was at 41.2%.
John Bristol, economic development director at the Steamboat Springs Chamber of Commerce, said a likely factor could be Routt County’s staggeringly low 1.7% unemployment rate.
“You look at it and you go wow, okay, this tells us that anyone who wants a job can find a job,” Bristol said.
Which, at first glance, is great. But there’s a catch. A lot of those available jobs pay a pretty average wage for the area, Bristol said. That includes census enumerators, who earn around $20 an hour.
“But then you look at the long-term opportunities that are with that. I mean, these are short-term positions. That might detract a little from it, especially when there's other positions available that have additional benefits,” Bristol said.
Back at the CU hiring fair, Daniel Barr said if they can’t find enough workers in certain parts of the state by the time the county starts, they’ll ask folks to travel or temporarily relocate.
“We recently were selecting people for Routt County and some of those people could come from Boulder County or even Broomfield County where we were at an excess of candidates,” Barr said.
That would mean the bureau ends up paying extra for workers — something it’s already planning on doing. Barr said the bureau also recently upped its minimum pay statewide to $20.50 in an attempt to attract more workers.
One of those candidates is Kaeli Pardi, another CU student stopping by the census table.
“I was actually coming to get a drink at Starbucks, but the line was really long,” she said.
Pardi said she’s unhappy at her current job. She’s also done canvassing work in the past, which makes her an ideal candidate for the census.
“I think a lot of us should be more invested in what’s going on in the country and the census is very important,” she said. “Getting stats and things and showing how America is in this day (matters).”
When asked if she’d be willing to move somewhere to carry out that mission, though, she said she’d have to think about it.
Barr said the bureau will keep recruiting up and through when the count begins this spring.
“We’ll get an accurate count,” Barr said. “Failure is not an option in this scenario.”