Printing giant has deadline, but the job is not yet set

On Thursday, the Supreme Court made the printing of census forms — a job held by one company, R.R. Donnelley — even more onerous.

Printing giant has deadline, but the job is not yet set

CHICAGO — The task of printing forms for the 2020 census was already enormous and difficult, with an immovable once-a-decade deadline mandated by the Constitution.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court made the printing of census forms — a job held by one company, R.R. Donnelley — even more onerous.

Over decades in Chicago, R.R. Donnelley has printed bestselling novels, direct mail, copies of The New Yorker and Sears catalogs. Now the company has been left to grapple with the logistical nightmare of meeting a deadline of national importance without knowing when the job will start.

Donnelley won a $115 million contract to print more than 1 billion questionnaires, postcards, letters, envelopes and inserts for the 2020 census. Production will take place at several of the company’s facilities around the country, according to the U.S. Government Publishing Office.

But before it can begin printing those forms, the company needs to know whether the census will include a question on whether the people filling it out are U.S. citizens. The Census Bureau has said that it needs to begin printing forms in July, setting a deadline of Monday. But one senior census official has said the bureau could wait until as late as Oct. 31 to begin if necessary, an assessment that some experts have disputed.

The deadline for completing the job is only months away. The first census forms must be distributed in Alaska in January; by law, the count must be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s stated reason for adding the question about citizenship, but there is still a possibility that the administration could return with adequate justifications for it. It could be months until the situation is resolved.

In back-to-back posts on Twitter, President Donald Trump said Thursday that the court’s decision was “totally ridiculous,” adding, “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter.”

But Trump’s desire for a delay could run afoul of the Constitution, which requires the federal government to count every person in the country once every 10 years.

Government experts say that adding the citizenship question would deter many Hispanic immigrants from participating in the census, leading to an undercount of about 6.5 million people.

A spokeswoman for Donnelley did not return a call and email seeking comment. The company has been a presence in Chicago, once the center of publishing in America, since its founder, Richard Robert Donnelley, arrived in the city in 1864.

Seven years later, its building burned in the Great Chicago Fire and was rebuilt.

Donnelley was once colloquially known as “Mother Donnelley” for its nurturing attitude toward its employees, and it is now the second-largest printing company in the country.

The company, which also produced the 2010 census, plans to spend at least $135 million on capital improvements this year, according to Crain’s Chicago Business — money that will in part go to new printing equipment and preparations for the census.

Margo Anderson, a census historian and the author of “The American Census: A Social History,” said she has seen two mock-ups of the 2020 census questionnaire, one form with the citizenship question and one without it. Census officials planned to begin printing the forms after they got the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Basically what they’ve planned is, there are two forms, the printer has both mock-ups, and when we get the court’s decision, they’ll push the button on this one and not that one,” she said.

For now, it was uncertain when that would happen.

Congress has complicated the census questionnaire before, Anderson said. Only two months before the 1910 census, a question on languages was added.

“The difference was that that was back in the day when enumerators took the census,” she said, referring to census takers who go door to door. “So all you had to do was send new instructions to the enumerators. The difference now is that we’ve automated all of this, and most of it is self-enumeration.”

James Clement, an analyst for Buckingham Research Group who studies the printing industry, said that the timeline for producing census materials had already been compressed by earlier delays in picking a printing company for the project.

If printing is delayed in the weeks ahead, Donnelley might wind up requiring its workers to log overtime hours and work on the weekends, Clement predicted.

“It’s a large, arduous and complicated process,” he said, adding, “I can say definitively that this is the only company in the country, if not the world, that would actually be able to handle this job.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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