Next Avenue: For a great temporary side-gig, consider being a census worker

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Think of the gig economy and your mind probably turns to Uber UBER, -0.35% and Lyft LYFT, +0.29%  drivers and freelancers. But if you’re looking for a short-term side hustle with competitive wages ($13.50 to $30 an hour), you might want to apply for one of the new temp jobs from the U.S. Census Bureau to help conduct the 2020 census.

The census jobs have flexible hours, which can include days, evenings, and/or weekends. Most of them require employees to have access to a vehicle and a valid driver’s license (unless public transportation is readily available) and access to a computer with internet, as well as an email account.

As you likely know, the U.S. census is a government-run survey conducted every 10 years to account for every person living in America. The results help determine everything from how federal funds are distributed among communities to the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 2020 census needs 500,000 temp workers

That’s a herculean effort that takes plenty of workers to pull off.

“We anticipate hiring a total of five hundred thousand temporary workers nationwide — including census takers, recruiting assistants, office staff and supervisory staff,” says Tim Olson, the Census Bureau’s associate director for field operations. “In areas where the Census Bureau has local offices, clerical jobs are also available.”

The 2020 census officially starts counting people in January 2020 in remote Toksook Bay, Alaska. After that’s done, most households in the country will begin receiving invitations to respond online, by phone or by mail in March 2020. If a household doesn’t respond, an enumerator will follow up in person.

Read: Including a citizenship question on the U.S. Census could have unexpected, long-term implications for your finances

Each Census Bureau position, however, has a different timeline for onboarding employees. “Currently, we’re conducting address-canvassing operations, which are occurring now and go through next year,” Olson says. The canvassing workers help the Census Bureau improve and refine its address list of households, essential to deliver invitations to respond to the census. Canvassers go door-to-door, working mostly daylight hours, wearing badges and carrying briefcases indicating their affiliation with the Census Bureau.

“Because we need to fill thousands of positions across the country, we start recruiting several months before making job offers,” explains Olson. “Depending on when an individual applies, it may be several weeks or several months before we start hiring in the local area.”

And he notes, if you’re not hired initially, you might be selected later. Applications remain in the pool for the entire 2020 census operation. “That way, an application could potentially be considered whenever there are openings in the area,” says Olson.

What census takers do

Of the half-million workers needed, about 50,000 will fill the role of census takers. Also known as enumerators, these employees will go door-to-door to follow up with households who don’t respond online, by phone or through the paper questionnaire they’ll receive in the mail early next year.

Read: The overlooked data point in the new Census report: Most families don’t have much income

They’ll ask residents the same questions that appear on the census form, which focus on demographics and aim to establish how many people were living, or staying, at that address on April 1, 2020 — the official Census Day. Information regarding age, race, sex and relationship among residents is also required.

With the diverse population in mind, the Census Bureau is seeking individuals who are fluent in English and other languages as well.

“We are looking for multilingual employees,” says Olson. “Since we are focused at hiring at the local level, we are looking for people who can speak the languages in their area.”

A key census perk: flexible hours

All the Census hires will go through training, which can sometimes be done online. Though work schedules differ by position, hours for field positions are generally flexible, adds Olson.

“Some field positions require you to work during the day to see addresses on buildings,” he says. “Other field positions require interviewing members of the public; so, employees must be available to work evenings and weekends, when people are usually at home.”

Flexible hours was a key perk that journalist Edith G. Tolchin, author of the novel “Fanny on Fire,” says she enjoyed working as a door-to-door census taker in upstate New York in 2010. “You could make your own hours as long as you got the job done,” says Tolchin. “(The) hourly rate was good and you could pretty much stay close to your neighborhood.”

Charles G., 48, of Los Angeles, worked for the 2010 census supervising a team of 18 enumerators while between full-time jobs. He agrees that the overall experience was a good one.

“There are a lot of positives,” he says. “You’re making a bit more than minimum wage. It gets you out of the house and you become friends with your fellow enumerators. I worked in my neighborhood, and for months after the job ended, I’d see people I’d met and it was always nice to say, ‘Hey Barb!’ and ‘Hi Al!’ You also get a feeling like you’re helping out in your own community, which is nice.”

The challenges of census work

Nevertheless, he also says he faced some challenges that made the job difficult at times. And, Charles G., adds, he imagines one of those issues — illegal immigration — will pop up again during the upcoming count. Though the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Census Bureau won’t include a question about citizenship in the printed questionnaire for the 2020 census, this former census supervisor believes the court’s decision may not be enough to ease residents’ minds in some communities.

“A lot of people were afraid to respond, and they didn’t answer the door because they fear you’re with immigration,” recalls Charles G. “People were scared, and I’m sure this time around those concerns will be heightened.”

Another factor making the job tougher than expected, he notes, came from the media cautioning about dangerous individuals impersonating census workers.

“Some of my enumerators experienced name-calling by residents who believed they were impostors, even though were wearing their lanyards,” he says.

Also read: Behold, the most lucrative (and fulfilling) side hustles

Tolchin points to another possible concern for canvassers: One of her biggest obstacles, she says, was “having, occasionally, to deal with menacing dogs.”

How tech is changing the work

Technology is changing not only how 2020 census takers will apply for work, but also how they’ll do their jobs.

In the past, census hiring was done by paper applications and in-person testing sessions. For the upcoming U.S. census, you can apply online through the bureau’s website, The application process takes approximately 30 minutes. (Interested individuals can call the census’ toll-free number, 855-JOB-2020, for more information.)

While census workers previously went door-to-door carrying reams of paper and perhaps a clipboard, 2020 enumerators can use smartphones, smart devices and laptops to update addresses and help people register their response.

Tolchin, who applied for the 2020 census, offers this tip for new enumerators: “Wear comfortable shoes and be persistent, yet diplomatic. Like the Postal Service, you’re out in all sorts of weather.”

Elizabeth Alterman is a freelance writer with more than 20 years’ experience in digital and print media. Her writing has appeared on Forbes, the New York Times, Newsweek, Mashable, The and

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