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Meet Janet Hernandez

Posted on May 3, 2019 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Census Taker, Immigrant & Catholic Charities Employee Extraordinaire

By Alice Kenny

Janet Hernandez, born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, married to an American citizen, and immigrated to New York in 2002, scored her first big break in the U.S. economy a decade ago when she landed a job as a 2010 census worker. Her strongest qualifications, she was told, were her Spanish fluency and ability to make immigrants comfortable enough to complete the census. Thanks to this job, she eased into her current position as a community organizer for Catholic Charities NY advocating for immigrants who often lack legal status.

Her background seems like an oxymoron, a series of seemingly absurd and self-contradictory statements strung together.  After all, a prime political issue surrounding the upcoming census surrounds whether a citizenship question should be added that could frighten away immigrants from responding.  Moreover, her current employer, Catholic Charities NY, helped spearhead an amicus brief to the Supreme Court that protests insertion of this question.

Yet it is all true.  And looking back now at Janet’s evolution from immigrant to census taker to her current gig at Catholic Charities it all makes perfect sense.

Good Pay and, More Important, Good Work

Back in 2009, Janet was studying English and taking classes in social work at Westchester Community College in Yonkers when she spotted an ad in Yonkers City Hall seeking Spanish speaking census workers.  Like now, census jobs were plentiful and paid well. 

“I could earn far more than I earned at my job as a home health aide,” Janet said, pushing away a wisp of her light brown hair.  “But what really struck me after I took the job was witnessing the homes and way many of my fellow immigrants in my new hometown were forced to live.  It was a wakeup call.”

Dominant Barrier:  Fear

Determined to get an accurate count, Janet visited apartments, laundromats, grocery stores and a spot in front of a local Sunoco gas station on Yonkers Avenue where most of the men, nearly all day laborers, waited for work. 

They congregated there hoping a contractor would stop to offer them a work.  Many she spoke with waited weeks in the winter’s bitter cold or under the summer’s burning sun for a single day’s work.  Some worked but never got paid by contractors who realized these immigrants had little redress.  And nearly none earned enough to cover rent for an apartment, no matter how small, where only their one family lived.

She found three, four families, sharing a single apartment, moms, dads and children all packed into a room.

Besides the overcrowding, the dominant emotion she witnessed, she said, was fear. 

“They were afraid to answer census questions, even back then when there was no question about citizenship, afraid they would be deported.”

Today’s 2020 Census: About Tomorrow’s Future

Convincing this group, so familiar with being taken advantage of, to answer the government census was not easy.  But it was, from Janet’s perspective, the bottom line.  The census count determines the amount of federal funds allocated for schools, hospitals and infrastructure. It determines the number of representatives a district is allotted and, in turn, the amount of political weight the district has.  And it helps companies decide whether to locate, invest or operate there.

“If you don’t answer you’re not counted,” Janet told all she met.  “Yonkers streets are in terrible shape; so much needs to be fixed.  We need to think about our children’s future.”

Contact the U.S. Census Burau to apply for job opportunities including work-from-home positions such as "Clerk" and "Field Representatives."