Workers: Problems Cloud W. Kansas 2010 Census Effort
I rarely classify an article as a MUST-READ, but the article below is surely a MUST-READ. Thanks to the stellar reporting of Mary Clarkin of The Hutchinson News, we have the following piece:
Three who had roles in address check speak of technological, pay issues.
By Mary Clarkin – The Hutchinson News
Lisa Stone, Patricia Wedel and Pamela Richardson thought they knew what they were getting into.
Favorable experience working on the U.S. Census prompted them to sign up to help Kansas count its population for 2010. The process began this spring with the address canvassing phase.
It does not generate much notice because it is not the actual people-counting event, but the address check is the “cornerstone of a successful Census,” the acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau told Congress in March.
Appointed to leadership roles in their respective territories, Stone of Dodge City, Wedel of Wichita, and Richardson of Manhattan, set to work.
But within hours of one another in late May, all three women resigned in protest. In separate interviews, they described what happened – and told why they strongly suspect the data for western Kansas is deficient.
At the end of crew leader training, Stone learned she would be in charge of quality control for the western third of the state. She asked if the territory could be divided. She said she was told no, the decision had been made at the regional Kansas City, Mo., office responsible for a six-state area.
“I’m not really a quitter. I’ve taken on big jobs before,” she said, so she tackled it.
Recruiting foot soldiers to verify addresses and then sending out another wave of workers to audit the results became challenging in western Kansas. Stone said the pay was partly to blame.
In western Kansas, the hourly pay rate for Census workers was $10, plus mileage. Elsewhere in the state, some people performing the same task received at least $3 an hour more.
Another handicap was technology. For the first time, Census workers had to use handheld computers, instead of pencil and paper.
“The handheld computers had a pretty high failure rate. By my estimate, about 40 percent of them weren’t usable. They had to be sent back to Topeka and swapped out,” Stone said. “They would send us replacements, but we wasted a lot of time.”
Sprint was the telecommunications network for the Census, but the scarcity of Sprint towers in western Kansas required workers to plug the handheld computers into a phone jack to transmit data.
“That really slowed things down, and there were days when the transmit just wouldn’t go through,” Stone said.
As Census officials monitored progress across Kansas, Stone found her district compared with more urban areas with plenty of workers and better technology connections.
“They kept telling me to go faster,” she said.
Headquarters supplied more people, she said. Unfortunately, extra field workers only exacerbated problems of overloaded handheld computers.
“It did fry out the circuits on one person’s computer,” she said.
Wedel feels the heat
Westen Kansas was always behind in the process, and Patricia Wedel said she “took the heat for that.”
Wedel was field operations supervisor in quality control for about two-thirds of the state, including the western half. As Stone’s superior, Wedel was empathetic.
The territory should have been broken into more districts, in Wedel’s view.
“Topeka claimed they couldn’t get enough employees in western Kansas,” she recalled.
She also attributed part of the problem to the decision to pay workers there the lowest rate.
Wedel, too, was vexed by the technology hurdles, requiring most workers to seek out a landline to transmit data.
Census officials advised workers to use the phone jacks at city halls or police stations, Wedel said, but that had the drawback of potentially tying up the only landline at some public offices.
“It was a very frustrating experience,” Wedel said, citing pressure from both the Topeka and Kansas City offices to move quickly.
Informed by a quality-control worker that the data for Clark County was incorrect, Wedel became concerned. But, she said, officials repeatedly stressed they wanted workers to limit the workweek to 40 hours.
There was “no way” they could accomplish the job under those time constraints, Wedel said.
“They really made it impossible for Kansas to get an accurate count out west,” she said.
Wedel expressed dismay at a lack of professionalism she sometimes experienced, including the time an official in the Kansas City office urged management to “kick their butts” to speed up the productivity of workers in the field.
Richardson takes calls
As a crew leader for a north-central Kansas territory that included Russell County, Richardson also wound up with more counties – 20 in all – than she originally anticipated.
“Really from the beginning, it was like bait and switch,” Richardson said.
She initially received the wrong address for the Abilene training site – the address given belonged to a private residence.
Because of another event occurring in Abilene, the Census ended up booking rooms in a cheap motel for training class participants, Richardson said. Some rooms didn’t have working phones or temperature controls. Richardson used her own card to guarantee rooms at another motel for some of the trainees.
In a perfect world, maybe the four-day allotted training would have been enough, she said.
But handheld computers crashed, delaying training. Some trainees had never touched a computer in their life, she also said.
“I knew it was going to be nothing but chaos,” she said.
Richardson, like other crew leaders, used a handheld computer to do payroll – a daily filing requirement – and to send out regular area assignments to workers in the field.
“I sat here glued to this thing,” Richardson said of a computer that took ever longer to transmit data. Even bathroom breaks did not separate her from the handheld computer.
Phone calls poured in constantly, too, from people with questions. Luckily, she had another cell phone at home, and family used that phone to reach her.
“We were supposed to go out on personal observation,” Richardson said, “but I had nothing but phone calls, phone calls, phone calls.”
Richardson found herself living and breathing the Census.
“You can’t turn in all your hours,” she noted.
Census staff in Topeka “never had any solution to the problem,” she said. “‘Pam, just do the best you can,’” she said she heard.
Richardson knew Stone’s territory lagged behind all the others in the state. The real problem for Stone was transmission, Richardson said, but they kept “threatening her like she was inadequate.”
When Stone resigned, about only 20 percent of western Kansas was finished, but an influx of workers from eastern Kansas arrived and the job was “magically” done in a little over a week, Richardson observed.
“In my mind, it’s impossible that they did western Kansas,” she said.
‘All the nightmares’
The handheld computers achieved notoriety before they were ever placed in the hands of Census workers.
The Florida-based Harris Corp. won a $600 million contract in 2006 to supply the small computers to the 2010 Census. In a dress rehearsal in 2007, however, workers experienced trouble transmitting data. Also, the computers would freeze.
In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office put the 2010 U.S. Census on the “high-risk” list. The U.S. Department of Commerce scrapped plans to use the computers for the actual census, but deemed it too late to replace the computers with paper for the 2009 address check.
Lyle VanNahmen, Spearville, regarded working on the Census as akin to “a patriotic duty.” As an auditor on Stone’s crew, he said the handheld computer was “pretty slick” in the field.
However, VanNahmen spoke of the transmission problems and the lack of a paper trail. He thought Stone should have been supplied a laptop computer, instead of the more limited handheld computer, for her role.
In VanNahmen’s opinion, western Kansas “was set up to fail.”
“It chaps me,” VanNahmen said, that workers brought in to finish up the canvassing received overtime pay. And he calls it “bizarre” that the job wrapped up in slightly over a week.
Howard Mead, a crew leader responsible for areas in Sedgwick and Sumner counties, said that territory managed to complete the job ahead of schedule.
“Western Kansas had all the nightmares,” Mead said.
State Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, a former Kansas Speaker of the House whose district is in the western Census district, said concerns about this Census had reached him. He also said he knew firsthand about the challenge posed there, where some physical locations and mailing addresses aren’t the same.
Pressure all around
The address canvassing phase is essentially complete, said Nancee Torkelson, the local Census office manager in Topeka.
“I think we’re probably good,” she said.
As for the status of Clark County, Torkelson said anything that was not done correctly was redone by the quality assurance team.
“For the most part, western Kansas absolutely stepped up to the plate and did most of their own,” Torkelson said.
Asked about transmission challenges, Torkelson said there were “a few areas” that did not have good coverage, but overall, the handheld computers performed better than expected.
“I think they can improve upon the handhelds, but I think they’re on the right track,” she said.
At the mention of Census workers who were not happy with the operation, Torkelson said, “I have not had any feedback on that through this office.”
“I had not had anyone call me,” she said.
Dennis Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Census, said the unit of work was houses, so the projected workload for a territory was based on those numbers. Worker pay varied, he said, because the Census looked at Labor Department wage rates for areas.
“We don’t do that helter-skelter,” he said.
To accommodate areas outside the Sprint network, the handheld computers offered the phone jack functionality, he noted.
There’s always pressure to make sure the work gets done because there is a “very firm” deadline for the Census, Johnson said.
“If they felt pressure, I can believe that,” he said.
“We anticipated challenges,” Johnson said, but for the most part, he was “very pleased” with the work to date.
Stone and VanNahmen talked hesitantly about their Census experiences. Even though they were dissatisfied by the recent phase, they find the Census an appealing idea and do not want to close doors. They both might take advantage of the chance to work on the final phases of the 2010 Census, if given the opportunity.
It involves meeting people, using problem-solving skills and working independently – an attractive combination, in Stone’s opinion.
Wedel, too, sounded interested in the possibility. She was surprised on the afternoon that she talked to The News to receive in the mail a letter from the Census saying, in effect, that she remained on active status with the Census.
But Richardson won’t be working anymore on this Census or future counts.
“I’m done for life,” she said.