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Census provides crucial infusion of jobs, even in good economic times

Janice Turner, 67, speaks to a group of people about the application process to work for the U.S. Census on Tuesday at the Chloe E. Coney Urban Enterprise Center in Tampa. Turner currently works for the U.S. Census in Hillsborough County. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Published Jul. 17

TAMPA — Ten years ago, Lisa Montelione needed work.

It was 2009, and like millions of Americans her life had been upended by the Great Recession. Months earlier, she had been laid off from her job in construction and her future was uncertain.

Then, in the fall, she received a stroke of good fortune: She got a temporary job working for the U.S. Census Bureau in Hillsborough County.

"It gave me some stability. It was a really great thing," she said.

Now, as the government gears up for the staggering logistical task of counting every U.S. resident in the coming year, the Census Bureau is hiring once again. The agency will open a field office in Hillsborough County and is expected to employ hundreds of people around Tampa Bay alone.

This time, the Census Bureau is recruiting temporary employees in a markedly different economy than in 2010. Unemployment has fallen steadily nationwide, and in Tampa Bay it has shrunk from 11.3 percent ten years ago to 3.1 percent today.

But for many in the bay area, the job opportunities provided by the census — the official U.S. head count that the Constitution requires every 10 years — are still welcome.

They include retirees, who are not counted in unemployment statistics and are drawn to the temporary part-time work for the Census Bureau, as well as people from parts of the bay area that have not seen the full effects of the economic resurgence. According to data released by the Census Bureau's American Community Survey in 2017, Tampa's Orient Park neighborhood and east Tampa both had 10.5 percent unemployment, compared to 4.9 percent unemployment across the bay area that year. (While the Department of Labor releases unemployment numbers monthly, the most recent community-specific data from the American Community Survey is from 2017).

More than 200 people showed up to apply Tuesday at the Coney Urban Enterprise Center in east Tampa, where the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa and workers from the Census Bureau held a job fair. Many were retirees, while others said they were between jobs and seeking whatever employment they could find.

"I didn't know much about the census, so this is all pretty new to me," said Tampa resident James Long, 26, whose last job was working as a quality technician for Zephyrhills Water. "I just saw that this was happening and it seemed like a good position."

Census jobs are attractive in part because they don't require technical skills and offer pay well above minimum wage. Depending on the position and location, the wages for census jobs can range from $13.50 to $24.00 an hour, and for enumerators — the most common role that involves knocking on doors and counting residents—it's $18.50 an hour, census worker Janice Turner said.

Turner outlined for applicants the ways next year's census will be unlike any before. Census workers will be issued smartphones as part of the government's ambitious plan to digitize the count, and for the first time, residents will have the opportunity to complete the surveys online, requiring fewer door-knocks. That's a change that was welcomed by those who worked for the Census Bureau in 2010.

"I was walking door to door in the heat, so this time I'd rather get to spend time sitting at a desk," Tampa resident Marsha Green, who worked for the last census, said to Turner after her presentation.

Census jobs represent an ideal job opportunity for populations served by the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, according to Montelione, a former Tampa City Council member who now works for the nonprofit. Montelione used her experience as a former census worker to answer applicants' questions at the job fair.

"What we find is that the people who come here have some sort of a challenge, which could be transportation, or something in their background, or the fact that they're retired, and we help them find employment," Montelione said. "Even though the census is temporary, it can fuel people as they're looking for more long-term work."

Those interested in working for the census can submit an online application on the 2020 census website.

Contact Aaron Holmes at aholmes@tampabay.com or (706) 347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.

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