Feature: Real Stories From The Census Bureau
It’s been a while since we’ve received contributions from real Census Bureau field workers (who obviously need to have their anonymity kept in tact), but as the “Group Quarters Validation” phase of the 2010 Census started last week, our inbox has been overflowing. Those interested in writing for us should not hesitate to send us contributions (details on our contact page). So, here we bring you an account from a Census Bureau employee in New York City:
I worked in the New York City area as a lister during address canvassing and was disappointed with how the operation was conducted. One of my colleagues pointed me to this website some time ago and I felt compelled to share my story. We had alot of the technology glitches in the hand held computers that are widely know by now which included:
* software issues such the program freezes
* transmission problems such as the Sprint cellular network being down and missing assignments and map spots
* hardware issues such as the fingerprint swipe not working
But New York City has its own problems and is a completely different beast in itself. New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States and each neighborhood has its own unique character. The Census Bureau tries to monitor productivity but the very nature of the city makes it very hard to monitor. Since all the units of multi unit apartment buildings are listed separately a lister has to key in every entry. Comparing someone who has an assignment with high rise apartment buildings versus someone who has single family homes is like comparing apples with oranges.
During address canvassing we were instructed to find someone who was knowledgeable about where people live or could live. But locating a knowledgeable respondent was easier said than done. There are small tenement buildings in Chinatown and Harlem brownstones; where there are illegal subdivisions. It is very difficult to gain entry or make contact even if you speak the language. There are also a lot of abandoned construction sites where developers tried to take advantage of the real estate boom after September 11th but found themselves out of money in the current recession.
Luckily for the Census Bureau, the current recession produced a talented pool of very intelligent and highly educated workers. My crew leader was knowledgable and a great leader. From the very beginning he was committed to doing things right. He said that he was continuously told a proper address canvassing operation would be the cornerstone of a successful enumeration. He was thorough and all the work was quality checked by one of the other listers or his assistant. When we couldn’t gain access to a building, he encouraged us to try again and gave us additional work to keep us productive. In the end we had all these partially complete assignments where we had one or buildings we either couldn’t get into or make contact with anyone. However the office was less than empathetic to our thoroughness. Our crew leader told us that Assistant Manager of Field Operations,field operations supervisors (FOS) and crew leaders in other districts would belittle those who were behind. They would constantly say things like ”John’s district is 40% complete why aren’t you 40% complete?” We were told that if we couldn’t gain access to a building after two visits we had to accept what was in the HHC as correct. Many of us were tempted to falsify work and accept what was in the HHC as correct but my crew leader and FOS were adamant about not doing that. One of the other listers found an entire building with over 200 single illegally divided rooms. The HHC had less than 10 units listed in it. If they accepted was in the HHC as true they would of missed over 200 housing units.
At the beginning of the fouth week, my crew leader and several others were written up for being unproductive because they weren’t working fast enough to complete their assignments. They asked the Field Operations Supervisor to approve the writeups. One of the Field Operations Supervisors refused to sign the writeups and they wrote him up also for being insubordinate.
During address canvassing we were to document any additions, or deletes to the address list on an INFO-COMM which is a carbon copy paper. They said that they were hiring clerks to reconcile INFO-COMMs between the production and quality control. The sheer volume of having to go through 2000 pieces of paper is mind boggling. Originally, the plan was to use the INFO-COMMs to help the quality control listers, but they wanted to keep the operation independent so quality control wrote an additional INFO-COMM. All told we wrote out over 2000 INFO-COMMs.
The handheld computer also had glitches. They switched crew leaders in districts that weren’t working fast enough and sometimes just reassigned work. When listers saw their timesheets weren’t approved they submitted additional timesheets electronically. The new crew leader approved it and then they accused these listers of intentionally trying to milk the government clock. They accused half of an entire crew of listers of clocking overtime.
Nonetheless with all the problems most of the listers worked quickly and breezed through their assignments. By the end of the first week we were about 25% done but they decided to train another 100 listers, by the end of the second week we were halfway done and some crews were almost done but they trained another group of listers. Some of these listers were trained and received no field work because there was none. All told we trained over 100 listers who received less days of work than the four and half days worth of training they received.
The thing to realize is that this was a poorly planned operation from the very beginning. The Census Bureau will waste money for government contracts on hand held computers that are shoddy and unreliable and training staff for which there is no work. But they will try to cut corners when it comes to their mission of counting each person accurately. In order to try to save money and finish ahead of other regions they used intimidation and the threatening of employees. I’m glad that Field Operations Supervisor stood up to the higher ups because like my crew leader said to me…they’re just of bullies.
When the address canvassing operation finished up it was alleged that some of the crew leaders and field operations supervisors told their listers since there was no regard to quality that they could skip making contact even going as far as not conducting field work and enter the units at home. There is no way that listers who were reassigned work magically gained access to buildings people couldn’t access for weeks unless they accepted what was in the HHC as true. The crew leaders and field supervisors who finished first were rewarded with additional work. Those who finished last were sometimes “written up” as unproductive and the office terminated their employment.
Luckily this story has a happy ending. My crew leader didn’t fire any of us for clocking overtime. What they found was that the payroll system was mistakenly rewarding people overtime if they worked over eight hours during a work day even though they were below forty hours in a week. Someone was able to view the timesheet submissions in the office and prove all these listers weren’t clocking overtime. It was rumored that someone who discovered this was the same FOS who refused to sign the writeups.
As for thousands of INFO-COMMs they are sitting in the office file cabinets gathering dust maybe someday someone will go through them. I highly doubt it given the sheer magnitude. I think my crew leader was incredible. And from what I heard from some of the listers that met him their Field Operations Supervisor was even better. I never got the chance to see him but I am honored to have worked with someone who is willing to jeopardize his job for what was morally right. I am surprised I received a phone call the other day to work in the next operation Group Quarters Validation. But I’m pretty sure that my crew leader or FOS won’t be returning anytime soon.