My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

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.

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19 Responses to “Feature: Real Stories From The Census Bureau”

  1. CL Says:

    Federal employees are entitled to Over 8 Overtime, not just Over 40 Overtime.

    As far as there being too little work for the listers, remember that the previous experience of 2000 was done when an unemployment rate of 4.5% made it difficult to find qualified candidates to work for the Census. I would imagine the quality of candidates this time, as referenced in this article, is far better, resulting in quicker than expected completion of work.

  2. TR Says:

    That’s only partially correct CL. Since intermittent employees don’t have a fixed schedule and set their own schedule, they can choose to work over 8 hours in a day without going into OT. However, if a supervisor tells them to work over 8 in a day, then it becomes overtime. This is why when in training, you always get over-8 overtime (your schedule is being set by your supervisor), but during regular field operations, you don’t (you set your own schedule). Over 40 is always overtime, though.

    As anyone who’s worked for the Census knows, they are extremely serious about the overtime policy. You clock unapproved overtime, you are fired, no additional warning. Your supervisor signs a timesheet with unapproved overtime hours, your supervisor is fired. There’s also a box on the timesheet asking, “have you worked any hours you haven’t claimed?” I was told to never write anything in that box, and that if I put anything in that box, I would be paid for those hours and fired.

    As far as the INFO-COMMS go, I worked in the office during Address Canvassing, and we entered all the INFO-COMMS into an Access database, though I don’t think we ever actually reconciled it with the field data. I don’t even think LCOs have access to the data from the HHCs once it’s submitted.

    And, in defense of the ELCO employees, I can tell you that the pressure to finish faster was coming from up above… RCC or higher. The word was that the Address Canvassing budget was blown to hell by 25% or more, so I assume they were trying to cut corners to save their asses. However it still doesn’t make sense to me why they trained more people than they needed, considering the training and materials overhead per employee.

    As far as hiring goes, below the supervisory (FOS in field, AM/OOS in office) it’s completely automated and not merit-based whatsoever beyond the basic skills test. There were no formal performance reviews, so there’s no legal basis to select employees based on performance. (However, I’m pretty sure that when it comes to being *transferred*, for example during AddCan when listers were transferred to different CLDs or from production to QC, performance does come into play.) The only thing they can do is ask the computer to spit out a list of only experienced candidates, then hire those before going on to people who haven’t done census work. And the only ways you will be taken out of the pool are: 1. you request it; 2. you reject 3+ job offers; 3. you are terminated for cause (not because of lack of work); 4. your fingerprint check doesn’t pass.

    And a little tangent from my last comment: One of the things that annoys me about the hiring process is that the QC people are hired *after* the production people. This means the QC people have lower test scores than the production people. That makes no sense to me, especially when production supervisors are so concerned over whether or not “QC will like it”.

  3. hermes Says:

    Something to keep in mind here is the remarkable nature of the Decennial Census, which is not part of the normal Census Bureau. What is remarkable is that it represents a MASSIVE bureaucratic organization (consisting of hundreds of thousands of people) that sort of spontaneously pops into existence once every ten years, then vanishes into thin air! What this means is that, basically, everyone is new at this. No one really knows how to do it (except for a few experienced folks who participated in earlier Decennial operations), everyone is learning as they go with just a few short days of training. So of course there are going to be glitches, poor decisions, conflicting orders coming from different parts of the food chain… there is a ton of chaos involved in organizing so many people. So take this worker’s complaints with a grain of salt. It’s not a smoothly functioning machine, it’s more of a halting frankenstein’s monster cobbled together, not from professional government agents, but from a wide variety of folks who’ve never done anything like this before. Give it some slack.

  4. Anonymous CL Says:

    TR: “One of the things that annoys me about the hiring process is that the QC people are hired *after* the production people. This means the QC people have lower test scores than the production people.”

    No, that might theoretically seem like the inevitable result of doing it in the wrong order like that (I agree it makes more sense the other way around), but I do know that in reality they never actually got down to needing to hire anyone who didn’t have high test scores. I had a perfect score on the test myself and was hired as a Quality Control CL, and my team of QC enumerators had near-perfect scores on the test.

    In this climate of much-more-massive-than-usual numbers of applicants for the 2008-2010 census work due to the economic situation, the applicant pool was so large and included so many higher-quality applicants, that the people who scored highly on the test were the only people hired for *any* census work in most places. (Perhaps some areas might not have had the huge applicant influx, but the majority definitely did, as seen by countless news articles back in the spring.)

    By the way, this is the first time a decennial census has had a separate QC team like this (and the Assistant Manager For Quality Assurance positions that manage the QC teams didn’t exist before), so it wasn’t ever a concern in the less-well-staffed previous censuses.

  5. Anon AM Says:

    hermes – point taken. I wonder if there is a huge difference in regional management though. Our region had the same problems as the OP. I will not cut our RCC any slack – they did not follow procedure and were unresponsive during the entire operation. For a massive short-term operation like this, ELCOs need support, not hostility.

    Anonymous CL – I wish we had such a large pool of applicants. We had huge areas where we did not have adequate numbers of qualified applicants for production, let alone QC (my area). Our main problem was lack of advertising. Our ELCO was not allowed to advertise, and the RCC did not get advertising to the rural areas. Luckily, I found that test score did not correspond to employee effectiveness/ability :) .

  6. House of Brat Says:

    @TR – point of clarification on the QC teams. You could only miss 3 questions and qualify for the Quality Control (score 25 out of 28 questions correctly).

    And yes, this was the first time they had Quality Control on the address canvassing.

    Also, I think one of the reasons why they hired so many people was because in years prior the address canvassing was done on paper, including mapping & numbering addresses on those block/area maps. It took a lot longer to complete. I know people who worked address canvassing in 2000, and they kept working for quite awhile because people would quit and there was work in other areas that needed to be done. At least that’s how it was in the West.

  7. TR Says:

    I did not know that regarding the QC hiring process. Where did you hear that they’d only accept people with 25/28 or better?

  8. TR Says:

    Also, I have heard the CCM listers (who are working with paper and without the benefit of any pre-existing address lists or map spots like the ones in the HHC) are given the same productivity figures as the Address Canvassing listers. This makes me think the productivity figures for Address Canvassing were just way off. Shouldn’t they have adjusted those numbers based on the Census Dress Rehearsal?

  9. House of Brat Says:

    From our crew leader, who had also worked the 2000 Census and also noted this was the first time they had QC on the address canvassing. We discussed it during a break in our training. Everyone had scored 25 or above.

  10. Anon AM Says:

    The selection criteria defaults to 70% as a passing test score if you do not specify something different on the D-150 (form to request employees). People could be hired with as low as a 20/28. Hiring goes by test score and Veteran’s 5/10 points though. As long as your qualified applicant pool is large enough, you won’t get down that far.

  11. TR Says:

    Anon AM, AFAIK, the test score is weighted and a “70%” is actually 10/28. I know this because I have entered test scores into DAPPS and have seen the percentages associated with each raw score. The percentage is also effected by veteran’s preference.

    HoB, My guess is that was just coincidence. The one thing to consider is that the QC CLDs are much larger than the production CLDs, meaning they are drawing from a much larger applicant pool geographically.

  12. DD Says:

    Difficult to find professionals, especially in CCM. They insist on hiring in the blind, bring on new staff in quantities, eliminate undesirables during training or early days in field.

    Management and supervisors weak link. Many unqualified with no project management credentials, “good old boy” network hiring friends, prior census workers creates poor staff. No planning or national coordination between regions. Left to develop local procedures. Very amature operation.

  13. Stephen Robert Morse Says:

    Liking the discussion here! Lots of good opinions being shared!

  14. Ex-IT Says:

    Although the recession has provided a large pool of hard working, well educated, workers, there are huge problems with procedures and management. There is way too much management by intimidation from D.C. and RCC who only look at the numerical metrics and quotas with little or no regard for quality and accuracy.

    Right now it looks like GQV is getting hammered by mistakes made during address canvasing. Also, one gets the impression that this is being done for the first time rather than for the past 220 years. We are still getting errata and addendum to manuals and procedures two weeks into a four week operation. There are lovely situations like trying to deal with an outhouse or storage shed in the middle of nowhere that somebody map spotted as an OLQ during address canvasing. Getting it classified as nonresidential fails initial QC if there was no interview.

  15. TR Says:

    After about a week in the field (once the griping about numbers from up above starts), the attitude of most field workers (including the supervisors!) shifts from the desire to do quality work to “it’s just a paycheck”. Of course I don’t blame the CLs and FOSes for this, since they’re threatened they’ll be fired if they’re not keeping pace with other crews.

    Ex-IT, welcome to the Census Bureau, where something changes every day. We’ve gotten “local” procedures from the RCC that have blatantly conflicted with the lister’s manual. You’re told to do something one way one week, then a different way the next week. Really efficient.

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  18. Anon Clerk Says:

    House of Brat, you are slightly confused about test scores. All positions within Decennial Census that are not supervisory require only a 70% or higher score. For CCM (sort of the QC of the QC) a 90% or higher is required. There is no distinction made between a QC lister or a regular lister in the hiring process.

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