Census hiccups in Alaska may offer preview for rest of US

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In this Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 photo, Stephan Patterson poses for a photo in Anchorage, Alaska. Patterson and other U.S. Census takers are reporting problems when conducting first-in-the-nation counts in rural parts of Alaska, including lack of communication about assignments, frustration with a smartphone app for filing time sheets and disappointment when they find out they are not being reimbursed for purchasing cold-weather gear. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – More than a month into the start of the 2020 census in rural Alaska, some workers going door to door have grown frustrated by not knowing when they will get their next assignments. Others have bought gear to protect against the brutal cold only to find out they're not getting paid back. And a smartphone app to log hours worked is difficult to use in the field, census takers told The Associated Press.

The counting underway in America's last frontier may preview some of the challenges that could crop up as the rest of the country is counted this spring. And while conditions in rural Alaska pose unique obstacles, both logistically and weather wise, some of the nuts-and-bolts hiccups that have surfaced point to a learning curve for what the Census Bureau touts as the largest peacetime operation that the U.S. government undertakes.

“The IT system goes down. You can't log in your time or expenses, or your training or your regular work," said Stephan Patterson, a census taker from Palmer, roughly 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

Census takers started flying out to rural Alaska villages in January to join local hires in questioning residents in person. Mail service is spotty and internet connectivity is unreliable, making door-to-door canvassing the best way to gather responses. The villages get a head start on the census because many people scatter in the spring to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds.

The rest of the nation will get the chance to answer the 2020 questionnaire starting in mid-March, either online, by mail or by telephone. This is the first count in which the Census Bureau is encouraging a majority of people to answer the questions online.

Starting in May, hundreds of thousands of census takers will be sent to homes nationwide to knock on the doors of residents who haven't answered the questionnaire yet. The Census Bureau is planning on hiring up to 500,000 temporary workers to help with the once-a-decade count that determines how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed and how many congressional seats each state gets.

In Alaska, census taker Carl Schramm said he's had fun going to rugged territory. But he said it's inconsistent work. Some census takers have become frustrated, he said, by having to wait at home for their next assignment without any guidance or pay.

"A lack of communication is the No. 1 problem," said Schramm, a retiree from Wasilla. “You don't know basically what's happening from day to day. When you get back from an assignment, you call and say, 'Where am I going next?' And you really don't get an answer.”