WASHINGTON — As census workers gear up to count us, they are counting themselves lucky to be employed.
This once-a-decade temporary work force is giving a timely boost to the battered job market. Census workers accounted for nearly a third of the jobs added in March, when hiring occurred at the fastest pace in three years.
Over the next two months, another 600,000 to 700,000 census jobs will be added, putting $10 to $25 an hour into the pockets of some desperate job seekers.
Although these jobs will only last through mid-July, economists say they will provide a fortuitous stream of income to families and act as an employment bridge until summer, when more private employers are expected to ramp up hiring.
The census hiring also comes in a year when President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package will peter out. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that stimulus spending added more than 1 million jobs last year.
"It comes at a good time because you're transitioning from an economy that's slowly recovering to sustainable growth," said John Canally, an economist at Boston-based LPL Financial. "This is a good patchwork until then."
Still, the census paychecks won't have a meaningful impact on the overall economy.
The government has set aside $7.8 billion to conduct the census. That pales compared with last year's stimulus package of $862 billion.
Yet the impact of these jobs cannot be overstated for people who were out of work.
"Census to the rescue," said 24-year-old Cierra Edwards of Toledo, Ohio. "I was so far behind. Rent started stacking up, bills, diapers."
She hopes her job as office operations supervisor will last at least through the summer and make it easier to land another job.
Michael Housewright, whose disc jockey business in the Detroit area all but dried up as people spent less on weddings and corporate parties, said the census work came at "exactly the right time." Housewright, 42, is hoping to land another government job, perhaps in homeland security, once his census job ends by early July.
A single mother of three living in Dacula, Ga., Ivonne Chavez, 35, said her temporary census job "basically came and saved me." She was hired last June to promote the 2010 census, a year after losing her accounting job. Her original contract was set to end later this month but has been extended through May. She's hoping it will get extended again.
The nation added 162,000 jobs in March, 48,000 of which were census jobs, the Labor Department reported Friday. The unemployment rate remained stuck at 9.7 percent for the third month in a row, largely because more people entered the work force.
The big boost in census jobs anticipated in April and May could reduce the unemployment rate slightly. But these jobs are mostly part-time, and last six to eight weeks, so the unemployment rate is unlikely to bounce back in June without equivalent hiring from the private sector.
Economists do not expect the jobless rate to drop to something more normal – in the range of 5.5 percent to 6 percent – until the middle of this decade.
With 15 million Americans out of work, census officials say they are receiving an unusually high level of interest from highly qualified individuals.
"We've got people on staff from doctors to lawyers to people who are fresh out of college," said Leslie Benjamin, a census recruiter in Washington, D.C.
"The quality of the people we're hiring this decade is unprecedented," said Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau. "We're actually finishing our operations faster because they're so good. We are ... the beneficiaries of this horrible recession."
AP Writers John Seewer in Toledo, David Runk in Detroit, Kate Brumback in Atlanta, and Tom Ritchie, Kelly Daschle and Hope Yen in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.