Like many employees, Sophia would often spend time putting on lipstick and doing her hair before heading off to work. But Sophia, who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, was less concerned about appearing professional than staying safe. “I noticed that if I put on makeup, fewer people would be aggressive towards me during the day,” she said.
Sophia, who normally works as an actress, spent several weeks this spring working as an enumerator in Los Angeles, going door-to-door at houses that had failed to send in census forms. And with or without makeup, she faced some scary moments. After one man threatened to “lay hands” on a colleague of hers, Sophia was asked to try her luck getting the man to answer a few Census questions. When she showed up at his doorstep, the man was visibly angry and kept repeating “it’s not a good time, it’s not a good time.” He did not threaten Sophia but instead stubbornly dared her to “come back with the police and we’ll talk then.” On another occasion, Sophia was interrogated for several minutes by a man she was canvassing before she noticed he was raising his arms in what appeared to be a menacing gesture. “I was standing in the back entrance of an apartment and no one could see me from the street,” she said. “He reached up his arms and I thought he was going to hit me but then he said he was just scratching his back.”
We spoke with several current and former census workers who only agreed to talk to us on condition of anonymity because they undertook an “oath of secrecy.” According to Samantha O’Neil, a public affairs specialist at the Census Bureau, this policy “varies by region,” but in much of the country it’s true that census workers can’t talk to the press about their experiences. But many of their stories emphasize the difficulty of this job.