Census Bureau asks Utahns with P.O. boxes to wait before filling out online questionnaire

(Courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau) A paper questionnaire is reviewed.

Utahns who live in rural areas and use post office boxes for mail delivery are being asked to wait to fill out the 2020 census questionnaire until paper packets arrive at their homes.

Most of the 88,600 households in Utah that lack home mail delivery will be visited by a census worker in the next four weeks now that field operations have resumed in the state, according to Cathy L. Lacy, director of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Denver Regional Office and Dallas Regional Census Center.

“Utah is one of the first states where we are back into the field to deliver questionnaires,” Lacy told The Salt Lake Tribune, adding that operations resumed Tuesday after being stopped in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[Read more: 2010 census changed voting maps in San Juan County, but fears of an undercount loom for 2020]

Areas that use post office boxes are categorized by the Census Bureau as “update/leave,” which Lacy said applies to residences where mailing addresses may not link up to physical addresses.

“For the census, we are supposed to put population where they are physically located, which is that street address, not that PO box,” she said. In order to ensure accuracy, census workers visit each home in an update/leave census area to update its location in the bureau’s system. The workers will leave a packet on the front door with a unique code tied to that location that can be used to respond to the questionnaire online, by phone or by mail.

For the roughly 95% of U.S. residents who receive mail at their physical addresses, the bureau is encouraging them to respond to the census as soon as possible. As of Wednesday, nearly 62% of Utahns had done so.

In Garfield, Piute, Beaver, Emery and Rich counties, however, the census self-response rate was under 6% as of Wednesday, putting them at the bottom of the pack in Utah. But most of those counties also include large update/leave areas, meaning the low self-response rate may be in line with the Census Bureau’s request that residents wait to respond until packets are delivered.

“If [your address is] 101 Main Street and people want to self-respond, that's pretty easy to do,” Lacy said, but she asked post office box users to be patient.

“If you're a rural route, that rural route may not mean anything to the Census Bureau with our master address file,” she said. “We would have to connect that to a specific map spot on the ground. And that's why we actually go out and we check the addresses. We check the location of each of the housing units. Then we add any housing units that were not previously on our list, and we delete ones that are no longer on the ground.”

Some of the home visits were completed between March 15, when they were scheduled to kick off, and March 18, when they were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Around 10% of update/leave residences in San Juan County, for example, had a paper packet dropped off and the address information corrected during those four days, Lacy said.

If people in update/leave areas did not wait for the packet to arrive and responded to the census online using their address instead of the unique code, a census worker may still visit those homes to ensure location information is correct.

The process of field visits has been complicated by the pandemic, but the Census Bureau said in a news release that it has implemented new safety and social distancing protocols, including safety training.

“For their safety and the safety of the public, the Census Bureau has ordered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all field staff, including those that work in a field office,” the bureau said. “These materials will be secured and provided to staff prior to restarting operations.”

Lacy added that workers are instructed not to knock on doors or attempt to interact with the public while dropping off packets, and all workers will carry a badge to show they are on official business.

While most rural Utah residents will receive census packets in the next month, the exception may be Native American reservations that still have travel restrictions in place such as the Navajo Nation in southeast Utah. The Census Bureau is having regular conversations with tribal governments, Lacy said, and will send out field staff in those areas when it is safe to do so.

Although rural residents are being asked to wait until packets are delivered, the Census Bureau asks them to fill it out as soon as it arrives. Homes that receive a packet and do not respond in a timely fashion will be revisited by a census worker who will attempt to complete the interview in-person. That phase of the process is scheduled for August, but could get pushed back.

“When people get that questionnaire, we really do ask them to go ahead and go online and complete it,” Lacy said. “Every response is critical, especially for the state of Utah, to make sure that you have accurate information for planning for the future."

Census counts, which occur every decade, influence “the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds,” she added, "and the data itself is invaluable for the next 10 years.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.