Two weeks after a federal judge prohibited the U.S. Census Bureau from winding down the 2020 census, a manager in Illinois instructed employees to get started with layoffs, according to an audio of the conversation obtained by The Associated Press.
During a conference call Thursday, the Chicago area manager told supervisors who report to him that they should track down census takers who don't currently have any cases, collect the iPhones they use to record information, and bid them goodbye. The manager did not respond to an email from the AP.
“I would really like to get a head start on terminating these people," he said. “All of these inactives that we have, we need to get rid of them. So hunt down your inactives, collect their devices, get them terminated and off of our lists."
It was unclear whether such actions would violate U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh's temporary restraining order prohibiting the Census Bureau from winding down field operations while she considers a request to extend the head count by a month.
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Earlier this week, the judge, who is in San Jose, California, held a hearing on other possible violations of the order, but no action was taken after a Census Bureau official said in a declaration that they were unsubstantiated or the result of miscommunication. The judge extended the order for another week on Thursday.
Government attorneys told the judge earlier this month that the Census Bureau would refrain from laying off workers who were in the later stages of door knocking at the homes of residents who hadn't yet answered the census questionnaire. They said workers could still be terminated for performance reasons, however.
While the Chicago area manager told his supervisors they couldn't lay people off for lack of work, he suggested they could encourage census takers who haven't had an assignment in a while to resign or fire them for poor performance.
“It doesn’t have to be their performance is poor. It just means it’s not good enough," he said. “If you are going to terminate someone for performance, I want you to consult me first. But I'm pretty much going to be on your side, no matter what."
The census manager also suggested that supervisors should unofficially plan on wrapping up their work by Saturday, 11 days short of the Sept. 30 deadline for ending the 2020 census.
Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said in a statement Friday that the agency was investigating.
“In the meantime, the U.S. Census Bureau continues to focus on conducting a complete 2020 Census count while instructing field personnel of their continuing obligation to comply with court orders,” Cook said.
The once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident helps determine how $1.5 trillion in federal funding is distributed annually and how many congressional seats each state gets — a process known as apportionment. The census takers are sent out to knock on the doors of homes that have not yet responded to the census on their own, either online, by phone or by mail.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the bureau had planned to complete the 2020 census by the end of July. In response to the pandemic, it extended the deadline to the end of October. That changed to the end of September after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to take up a request from the Census Bureau to extend the deadline for turning over the numbers used for apportionment. As a result, government attorneys told the judge, the Census Bureau has no choice but to finish the count by Sept. 30.
The temporary restraining order was requested by a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups that had sued the Census Bureau, demanding it restore the October deadline. The coalition had argued the earlier deadline would cause the Census Bureau to overlook minority communities in the census, leading to an inaccurate count.
“The idea is, if you have less time and less people, there’s going to be less counting," Melissa Sherry, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said during a virtual hearing Friday.
Attorneys for the coalition said Friday that they didn't want to comment on the Chicago case.
Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana on Friday said it was being harmed by the judge's order preventing the Census Bureau from winding down operations. In a court filing asking to intervene in the coalition's lawsuit, the state said if census officials were allowed to shutter operations in places where they had completed their work, they could redirect resources to states like Louisiana that are lagging behind in the count.
“That status quo has been upended," the filing said.
This story has been edited to clarify that it was the census manager, not census taker, who suggested supervisors should wrap up by Saturday.
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