Confounding the Count: ‘Some Buildings are Simply Turning Census Workers Away'

A Census office in NYC said they have received dozens of complaints about stubborn doormen and front desk personnel who refuse to allow workers up elevators and into apartment tower hallways — despite being required to allow access

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With a month left to count and billions of government dollars at stake, U.S. Census officials are sounding the alarm about New York City apartment buildings reportedly blocking Census workers from knocking on doors.

“Some buildings are simply turning the Census workers away.  That’s completely illegal,” said Julie Menin, director of New York City’s Office of the Census.

Menin says her office has received dozens and dozens of complaints about stubborn doormen and front desk personnel who refuse to allow Census enumerators up elevators and into apartment tower hallways. Census rules say buildings are required to grant Census workers access to buildings -- but tougher protocols associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged front desks to restrict visitors in order to curb the spread of the virus. 

Last week, the I-Team watched as a Census worker was blocked from accessing upstairs hallways in two Long Island City high rises.

In one, managed by the developer Rockrose, the Census worker tried to negotiate with the front desk attendant for nearly 15 minutes only to be turned away.  When asked why the worker was denied access, the attendant said, “because of the coronavirus.”

In an emailed statement to the I-Team, a company spokesperson wrote:

“While we are investigating the details of the incident in question, Rockrose supports full cooperation with U.S. Census employees and attempts to facilitate a 100 percent response rate from all of our residents. We also enforce standing building policies to protect the personal security and health of our residents, particularly during the current COVID emergency.”

Jeff Behler, regional director of the U.S. Census in New York, said his office has tried to work with city officials to educate the union representing doormen and other building personnel. He said about 20,000 Census enumerators are relentlessly pounding pavement -- and every door-knock counts.

“We’re going to visit households if we need to up to six times.  We’ll knock on their door till we get a response,” Behler said.

But time is running out.

At the end of August, New York City had a Census self-response rate of 61 percent.  That is behind the nation’s average Census self-response rate of almost 65 percent. The city is also trailing it’s own self-response rate from 2010.

A huge amount hangs in the balance,” said Steven Romalewski, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School who maintains a map tracking Census response rates.  

Romalewski said he’s particularly concerned by Census tracts on the map that are shaded red, meaning their response rates are lagging more than 10 percent behind response rates from a decade ago. 

“When I see a lot of those red areas it makes me concerned we need more time to count those areas fairly and accurately,” he said.

The 2020 U.S. Census is required for anyone living in the United States, but there are billions of reasons you'd want to take it: lawmakers use census data to divvy up money for important resources like hospitals, fire stations and roads. Lawmakers will rely on this year's census data until 2030, so now's your chance to make sure your household is counted where it counts the most!
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