Around the first of the year, posters began appearing on public buildings and bulletin boards advertising jobs with the U.S. Census. So I applied.

The U.S. Constitution mandates this enumeration of everyone living in the U.S. on April 1 at the start of every new decade. The U.S. Census Bureau has been counting heads since 1790.

I completed the census for our household online in mid-April, supplying information about who lives at our address — names, ages, dates of birth and national origin. Quick and easy. I figured most everyone would do the same.

Four months after I applied for the job as an enumerator, a manager at the U.S. Census office in East Bridgewater, called and asked me a series of questions about my availability and willingness to do door-to-door canvassing. He asked if I was able to walk up a three or four-story building, and when I said we don’t have those here on Martha’s Vineyard, he chuckled. He said I would be provided Personal Protection Gear (PPE) to ease any fears of the pandemic by then spreading across the country. I never received that gear.

He told me that after filling out a bunch of forms online I would be moved along to the fingerprinting stage of the operation.

A month later I received a telephone call from Sally (not her real name), a census worker on the Island. She informed me of the two pieces of identification needed for the fingerprinting as well as the bar code I needed to bring. I had no bar code and no idea what she was talking about. She said she would get the code from headquarters.

When I arrived at the Oak Bluffs Library for the fingerprinting a couple of days later, she asked for my bar code. I reminded her that I did not have one and that she was going to get it for me. She had not gotten the bar code, so I headed home.

Days passed without any word, so I contacted the East Bridgewater office.

The supervisor shared with me both my HRS number as well as the job number. I would learn later that the HRS number was also my AP number (Applicant Number) and would later become my EI (employee number), if I was hired.

A week later, on June 30, the fingerprinting was completed. I sent a selfie to headquarters to be used on my employee ID name tag.

Two weeks later the folks at East Bridgewater confirmed that the FBI had received my fingerprints and would begin the process of conducting a background check.

On July 20, an email informed me that I was okayed by the FBI and could now go back into the computer and complete seven more documents online. With the forms completed, another supervisor in East Bridgewater told me the date and time of training.

On August 4, seven months after I had applied for the job, I arrived at the Masonic Hall for what I had been told would be a two-hour training session.

Two and a half hours later, after signing many more documents and standing with my right hand raised to swear to defend the U.S. Constitution, I was handed my official US Census ID tag and tote bag. It was loaded with many copies of the information sheets and the Notice of Visit (NOV) forms to be used in the field, a clipboard, a pen, and a smartphone.

Perhaps somewhere in America enumerators were already in the field, but not on Martha’s Vineyard.

Because of the virus, the training had been canceled, and instead I learned that I would be taking training online. Before I walked out I used my thumb print to create a security code for the smartphone.

Initially the smartphone worked. I could access the training module. Then I couldn’t.

I contacted my supervisor, Joe (not his real name), who came to my house, retrieved the smartphone (which he could not open either) and sped away. The following day he returned with the smartphone reengineered to use my birth date instead of the thumb imprint to access the system.

Joe said there were 12,000 properties identified on Martha’s Vineyard for in-person enumerator visits, with 20 enumerators working.

I asked him how long we would be working, because originally the in-person census process was scheduled from August through the end of October. But I had learned from news reports that the U.S. Census had announced that the process would be halted at the end of September. Joe told me we would “keep working till we get it done.”

Training online included a brief videotape and a questionnaire. The scenarios were brief show-and-tells of an enumerator’s encounter during a NRFU (Non-Response Follow Up) interview. I learned to love to use the term NRFU (ner-foo).

The enumerators on the videotape exercises were shown knocking on the front door of a single family home or interviewing the manager of a multi-unit apartment building. We learned how to encourage people to complete the brief interview, even if they said they had completed the census online or by mail already.

If there was no response at an address the enumerator might be prompted by the smartphone to find a proxy — a neighbor, for example, who might help fill in the information about an address. The next door neighbors seemed to live right next door — certainly not four acres of wooded property away.

All the data to be collected would be prompted by the smartphone computer application and stored there. If there was no response at an address and no handy proxy, the NOV form was to be completed and stuck in a visible location on the front door.

The online lessons required about six and a half hours to complete.

At the end of the training, Joe virtually rounded up two other enumerators who would be working on the Vineyard or Cape Cod for a series of role playing exercises to practice the skills we learned. We could begin work.

Monday, August 17 was my first day in the field. Overnight the IT people loaded the addresses I would be going to that day into the smartphone. Every night, the destination list was updated or changed.

Fortunately the night before I began the work my sister volunteered to be my driver. I could not have done the job alone. I had signed up to do the work for three hours a day five days a week. Some days, our list of address would be 26 locations long, other days 18 addresses and one day 103 addresses.

Job number one was finding the address. Often there was no address posted or the number was on a buoy, a fencepost or a tree. The smartphone database had only addresses, no names. And this is a rural community, with dirt roads and lousy, intermittent GPS reception.

Each morning my sister would take the list of addresses from the smartphone and reorganize them.

There was no rhyme or reason for the list — one stop in Chilmark, then back to West Tisbury and two addresses on Lambert’s Cove Road, then a couple on State Road and off to Indian Hill or Christiantown Road.

And off we would go to begin our shift.

Location found. Door knocked upon. No answer. I would look through a front window and see furniture but no signs of life (no cars or boats in the driveway, no kids’ beach shoes on the front porch, etc.), so I would complete an NOV form and find a crack in the front screen door to leave the document.

On any given day I might find four or five people answering my knock on their front door.

The most common response to my knock was “I already did it,” online or my mail. The smartphone did not know that and neither did I. My job was to undertake the interview anyway using the official computer program. Fortunately, perhaps because I am a woman with lots of silver-gray hair, the respondents agreed to take a few minutes, to “help the feds” as I would say.

Only once did a woman angrily refuse to talk to me. I was tempted to use the “this a federal government requirement” response, but simply left the property.

Most remarkable was the failure of folks to understand that the census was a requirement or that if they drive a car with Connecticut plates or voted in New Jersey but were living on the Vineyard on April 1, they needed to respond to the census questions. 
And so it went.

Each morning my sister would reorganize the day’s assignments in some geographically logical pattern and we would head out. Three hours later we would call it a day.

At the end of my second week in the field, I quit.

We had just found an address in West Tisbury. My smartphone told me that it was a NRFU RI (a re-interview.)

I knocked. A young man cradling an infant daughter came to the door. I identified myself. He told me that a woman had come to the house two days earlier and he had completed the census with her. I smiled and he agreed to take a few more minutes to do the process again despite the squirming infant in his arms.

I walked back to the car. The notion that hundreds — or perhaps thousands — of first-time visits needed to be done on the Vineyard and that I would be doing a re-interview before those were completed, was the end for me.

I notified my supervisor that I was done and would bundle up my materials and leave them on my front porch for pickup when he had time. I included a letter of resignation in hopes that someone somewhere would care about my frustrations and concerns with the accuracy of the process.

I have heard nothing.

As a result of the 2012 census, the U.S. House of Representatives shuffled 18 chairs. Massachusetts and eight other states lost a congressional representative. New York lost two. The U.S. Census data reapportions the 435 congressional seats and trillions of U.S. dollars that the federal government sends to states based on population. It matters a bunch.

Now there is plenty of time to get it right — in 2030.

Sue Silk is retired and lives in West Tisbury.