EXCLUSIVE: Former NYT Reporter Exposes Census’ Mishandling of Operations
By Laura Mansnerus
Well, the census job in Philadelphia is over. They hired way too many of us. We finished a couple months ahead of schedule. They trained people for a week so that they could work for two weeks. We all miss the paychecks we thought we’d have. The Census Bureau goofed. Does Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke know this? Probably not.
My census job was a total accident. This winter, I was on hiatus from my career in the dying newspaper industry, having left my job to take a fellowship that, of course, came to an end. When I regained consciousness, the whole publishing industry was staggering toward a cliff. Uh-oh.
In January, I was prowling on Craigslist — and the Census Bureau was recruiting for the address canvassing phase of the 2010 Census: Work 20 to 40 hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks.
And before long I was a “crew leader,” hired at $19.25 an hour to supervise canvassers, known as listers, who would be verifying every address in my district of Philadelphia. All over the nation, listers would be updating maps and address lists so the bureau would know where to send questionnaires for the 2010 Census. Fine.
I loved the prospect of spending springtime on the streets while putting off a hideous job search. Moreover, I tend to believe that the public sector does important things, even though I once worked for the E.P.A., one of the worst government agencies known to mankind. The census is a worthy undertaking. The Constitution told us to do it! So I walked into this job with a pretty sunny outlook.
The crew leaders started in March. We were told we’d be working into June. The official deadline for the address canvassing operation, I learned later, is early July.
In my chunk of Philadelphia, seven of us crew leaders were trained the first week, and the next week we trained assistant crew leaders. The third week, each of us would train about 15 listers. Then we would parcel out “assignment areas,” or AA’s, smaller districts with 300 or so addresses each, to the listers.
My supervisor, Ian Hemphill, said we would be all working all-out, full-time and furiously, because the Philadelphia region was behind schedule. It took me a week and a half to start wondering about this. The crew leaders and assistants had already knocked out a few assignment areas. Even fumbling with the balky software on our little hand-held computers, you could finish an AA in a day. My district had 90 AA’s left to assign. I’d have 15 listers.
“Ian, am I missing something?” I asked him when he called a meeting of the crew leaders. “I have 90 AA’s left, and they’re sending me 15 listers. That’s 6 per lister.”
“Oh, ho, I think your math is a little off there,” Ian said.
“Wellllll, I have 90 AA’s, divided by 15, and that’s 6.”
“Let’s get our terms straight here. Six per what? Six per day? Per week?”
Another crew leader, a quiet young guy headed for graduate school, entered the conversation: “SIX … for … the … rest … of … the … entire … operation.”
We could finish the whole thing in a week. Given some slow listers and half-functioning computers, it would take two weeks. But Ian was not persuaded. We all went home.
Wait, I said to myself. The Census Bureau was about to screw a bunch of barely employed people. They had been told they would work until June. They wouldn’t. Worse, this is the agency charged with sophisticated demographic analyses for government and business throughout the nation — no, the world — and with 10 years’ planning time the people running it didn’t know how long it takes x listers to verify y addresses? I had a supervisor who couldn’t divide 90 by 15?
I went to Google News. All around the country, newspapers were running friendly features as address canvassing started in their communities. The Census Bureau, as many of these reporters had copied from its press releases, hired 140,000 people to verify 145 million addresses. Ooops. So they were doing this everywhere. They hired one person for each 1,000 addresses. In Philadelphia they had hired one per 2,000 or so addresses. How long could that take?
The next week, while our listers were chewing through AA’s, Ian trained a second wave of listers who would serve (if needed) as replacements. Meanwhile, we were encouraged to fire people wherever possible. I did not fire anyone. I got two more listers. I got 19 in all, though one was fired because he had failed the security check. (When the local Census authorities learned this, he was already on the job — your federal security clearance dollars at work! — so I had to confiscate his computer and badge immediately while we were out on the street. But that’s another story…)
They people who were hired were top scorers on the same test I had taken. Some had not worked for months and were hugely relieved to have jobs, any jobs. They took their mission very, very seriously. We got lost in discussions about how to treat houses that appeared to be abandoned or buildings that might be divided into illegal apartments, even though our supervisors did not want us to spend much time on concerns like this.
The listers were in their second week on the job when the AA’s dried up. My big crew leader map was plastered with check marks. The listers had put in their first full day on April 3, and most were on their last AA’s when the crew leaders were summoned to headquarters on April 15. The assistant manager for field operations, a mild sort named Wayne Wolfgang, who seemed to be trying to do the right thing, announced, “There’s rumors out there that we’re running out of work.” Not true, he said. “We have a lot of opportunities to move people around. We still have work for everybody.”
Since the crew leaders had been instructed not to open our mouths at this meeting, we didn’t. The office manager distributed a memo from the regional director, Fernando Armstrong, stressing the importance of meeting deadlines. Attached was a warning about driving safely, and anticipating hazards like black ice and moose. We were supposed to pass these out to our listers. And we did! You’re out of work, but if you had any, you should watch for moose on Washington Avenue!
Ian wanted us crew leaders to tell people, “We will find you work.” I ventured, “I’m telling them, ‘we might find you more work.’” Ian got mad. “No! We WILL find you work!”
Nothing materialized, though. Listers who needed to reopen their unemployment claims asked if the Census Bureau would provide letters to certify that they were out of work. No, The Census Bureau wouldn’t do such things.
Many people had passed up other temp jobs or even quit jobs to take jobs with the Census Bureau. “What am I going to do?” said one middle-aged woman whose other job was passing out samples at a liquor store a few hours a week. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, six or seven times. She gave me phone numbers of a couple market research firms that convened focus groups.
Others just wandered away. A few called or visited the office to deliver a piece of their minds. This was to be avoided at all costs. Keep them away from us, the last text message from Ian said. It also said, “Congratulate Listers [sic] on a quick accomplishment of their mission. Stress the positive. Stress the value of a period of federal employment with the possibility of recommendations.”
Today was my last day. I turned in the equipment I’d gathered up from listers, and on the way out of the office I saw Wayne Wolfgang. I asked him a question: “Why did the Census Bureau hire 20 people, including me, to do 97 AA’s?”
“Well, that was the number he was given by headquarters,” he said.
There was no mistake. We finished early. So what?
Wolfgang, apparently looking for congratulations until the end, said, “Did it ever occur to you that we’re efficient?”
“No,” I said.
Laura Mansnerus was an editor and staff reporter at The New York Times for 22 years. She was a 2007 Soros media justice fellow. She is also a no-longer-practicing lawyer.
Note: This article does not represent the opinions of MyTwoCensus.com, Stephen Robert Morse or Evan Goldin. The views expressed are those of the author. That said, MyTwoCensus welcomes written, video, photographic, and multimedia contributions from any individual with a 2010 Census-related story to tell.