A Census Worker Reflects: The Right to Privacy When Nature Calls

The U.S. Census has suspended field operations for the time being because of COVID-19. Northern Wisconsin Census field worker Donna Kallner says finding a place to answer nature’s call was as difficult as finding hand sanitizer.

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One day last January I walked into the library in town. I only expected to pick up a book. But a Census recruiter approached me, and I picked up a temp job. More accurately, I got the job after I was fingerprinted, background-checked, completed training, and swore an oath to protect the data I collect and the privacy of the people who are being counted. That oath is for life. Also, my training was very clear that I never represent myself as speaking for the United States Census. So this is just me representing only myself with a story about working the Census in a rural area.

There is nowhere to pee.

Let me back up. When the recruiter heard where I live he quickly had me convinced that by working the Census I could make a difference for my rural community. I had a pretty good idea of the challenges I might face, or so I thought. Actually, the job I’m doing is quite different than I expected, and not just because of the current COVID-19 situation.

My job is to update addresses and leave a 2020 Census questionnaire at housing units in areas assigned to me. Folks “down below,” as our urban Wisconsin cousins are known around here, probably received their Census form in the mail. Here, though, they are being hand-delivered in what I understand is a concerted effort to more accurately count what have been under-counted areas.

In the weeks between recruitment and work, I will admit I had some anxiety about the job. But I’m a planner, so I planned. I planned to wear my high visibility jacket — not only for visibility but to avoid looking like a missionary when I approach. And I planned to drive Bill’s truck — not only to look less like a missionary but also for higher clearance and tires better suited to spring roads in rural northern Wisconsin.

My first assignment took me into an area hard hit by the July 2019 derechos storm, a natural disaster that damaged a quarter of a million acres of forest. On a Sunday morning eight months later, people were still working to clean up storm debris at houses I had never noticed back when they were tucked into the woods.

The end of the road. A 2019 storm destroyed a quarter-million acres of forest in northern Wisconsin. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

There’s a high percentage of non-resident homes in this area — weekend cottages on lakes, hunting cabins, summer homes of snowbirds. On a Sunday in March it’s surprising how many people are around when you’re in an area with no trees and the need to pee.

Eventually I gave up and took my lunch break. A dozen miles away there’s a small grocery store that makes the best pasties (a meat pie). It was the closest bathroom I could think of that didn’t involve wading through a snow-filled ditch to huddle behind some Charlie Brown Christmas tree in my high-viz jacket.

The next day I left the truck at home and took my car. I have to be careful: Where the frost is going out, some roads and driveways and all of the shoulders on our narrow roads are very soft. But I can open both passenger-side doors and squat in relative privacy.

Donna Kallner lives in rural northern Wisconsin, where this week her county’s board of supervisors declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. She wants the neighbors who saw her buying antiseptic wipes last week (hand sanitizer was already sold out) to know she wasn’t hoarding, and that when she delivers their Census packet she will have taken every available precaution to keep it safe from exposure to the virus. Or anything else.

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