I spent 3 months as a Census worker. I was threatened, cursed at, and kicked off many front porches, but still did my best to make sure every resident was counted.

Vincent Lacey asking Census questions to a homeowner in Los Angeles. Vincent Lacey
  • Vincent Lacey is an actor based in Los Angeles who is working as an enumerator going door to door for the 2020 Census.
  • At first, Lacey says working for the Census was straightforward. But by October, many people were tired or annoyed by visits from Census workers, and he would often be threatened or cursed at.
  • When people refused the five-to-10-minute interview, the Census system would just send another worker to their home to try again until data collection ended on October 15, so Lacey did his best to collect responses at each home.
  • Lacey says he took pride in his work to make sure every resident and family is counted in the Census, as the data can make a big impact over the next 10 years.
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As I approached the property, a sign stared back at me. It had a picture of a gun pointed directly at my face and read, “NEVER MIND THE DOG. BEWARE OF OWNER.” I took a deep breath. I mean, I get the humour. No one wants to be the unsolicited visitor, especially in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

In this line of work, it’s best to assume the worst and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Still, in the past three months working for the US Census, I’ve been threatened, cursed at, and kicked off more front porches than I’d like to admit.

As a writer/actor/comedian who finds most corporate environments repugnant, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. Outside of my artistic pursuits, I’ve worked with several nonprofits in leadership and recruiting, and I was in the middle of pursuing a certificate at UCLA this year when the pandemic hit.

Working for a mission-driven enterprise with a flexible schedule seemed like a great fit. The Census doesn’t have many strict qualification requirements, but the best way to think of the job is like a sales position: After some brief online training, you are thrown into the field to sink or swim. Performance is everything.

The job as a Census worker is fairly straightforward

Vinnie Lacey
If no one answered, Lacey would leave an official Notice of Visit (NOV) form on the door. Vincent Lacey

My title is “enumerator” — as in, enumerate the details of non-responders to the 2020 Census. Each morning a list of addresses is beamed into my government-issued iPhone, and my job is to visit these households, ask the Census questions, and collect the answers on the iPhone.

The questions are all demographic: name, age, relationship status of the household members, etc. If I’m lucky, I get a willing participant and the whole interaction lasts five to 10 minutes. If no one is home, I leave an official Notice of Visit (NOV) form with a code to respond online or by phone. I hope this encourages at least some people to fill out their Census.

The pay rate in my home base of Los Angeles is $US25 per hour, with a 10% differential after 6 p.m. and “premium pay” of just over $US31 per hour for working on Sundays. There are bonuses for achieving a certain number of completed interviews per hour, plus reimbursement for mileage. This might sound like a lot of money; being that I live in LA, it’s fair but not luxurious.

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When I first started working for the Census in the first week of August, it was smooth sailing

Vinnie Lacey
In the beginning, Lacey says many people were happy to answer the Census questions. Vincent Lacey

Some people were even eager to speak with me. Because of my high completion rate, I was invited to join travelling teams that mandate seven-day work weeks with guaranteed overtime. It’s not glamorous to be on my feet for 10 hours at a time, but I get to see other parts of the country on a $US61 per diem and explore places I’ve never seen, like Las Vegas.

But as time went on, the job got harder. By October, most people were tired of Census visits. They claim they already filled it out, or that I’m the fifth enumerator who has come to their door this week. I often see a crumpled NOV in a hallway and feel an odd pang of rejection. Is there a term for being ghosted when you can tell someone is home but won’t answer the door?

Many days I was a Census ninja. I can’t count the number of times I followed a delivery driver into a locked building, or attempted to code-break the keypad to a gated community. As long as we weren’t breaking any laws, supervisors told us to find a way in by any means necessary. But getting in still didn’t guarantee success. If my target declined the interview, I was forced to click “refused” in the proprietary government app (read: not user-friendly), knowing this will only send someone else to try again tomorrow. It’s just how the system worked.

If I couldn’t find a respondent at home, that same system might prompt me to find a proxy, usually a neighbour, to gather information about the address. As you may imagine, this was not a popular tactic. With concerns of data privacy and just before another contentious presidential election, I felt like an intruder.

It’s also challenging finding myself in the middle of a rural area with high fences and significant distance between addresses. People choose to live this way for a reason — away from others, away from “government,” away from me.

Some days feel like a giant door slammed in my face

Vinnie Lacey
Despite the negative interactions, Lacey does his best to make sure every resident gets counted in the Census. Vincent Lacey

There are good days, too. When you work with the public, people find a way to surprise you, like the building manager who spent hours helping me determine occupancy in her apartment complex, or the power company field manager who was happy to commiserate with me over a beer (I accepted the conversation, not the beverage).

I visited one older gentleman who claimed to have the same name as a rock star around his age. He was living his first year as a widow, and we had a surprisingly personal conversation, surrounded by mementos of his marriage. He tried to give me a $US5 bill (again for the record: refused) on my way out the door. It was weird, but touching.

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Some of my favourite interactions started with resistance but ended successfully

On one occasion, a resident arrived home just as I was leaving a notice behind his screen door. He chewed me out over the annoying pieces of paper, and I waited before replying, “I understand. That must be frustrating. I kind of hate leaving them.” He laughed, we did the interview, and he even gave me a fist bump at the end. Really, I think he just wanted someone to listen.

Back at the property with the menacing sign, I made my way to the front door. I saw in my iPhone notes that this address has been attempted multiple times already with no luck. I happened to catch a break when a kind-looking couple answered. Neither of them was fluent in English, but with my mediocre Spanish and some gesturing, we got through my questions.

I felt a bit proud — I’m making sure a family gets counted, and that’s important. Even though it might feel annoying to answer a Census worker, the data we collect can make a big impact, from determining Congressional representatives to providing funds for social programs. We all have to live with these Census numbers for the next 10 years.

As I climbed back into my car, I gave the couple a thumbs up, and they smiled back. One successful interview down, many more to go.

Vincent Lacey is a freelance writer and comedian/actor in LA. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Instagram.