In Nebraska, workers are shifted between Omaha and Lincoln at a tremendous cost to taxpayers
The Omaha World-Herald has taken on an issue that I have written about extensively in recent weeks. How does the Census Bureau justify the costs of workers traveling large distances and putting them up at hotels while local workers get paid to sit idly or are terminated?
A waste in U.S. Census operation?
By Christopher Burbach
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
The U.S. Census Bureau has brought in more than 30 out-of-town workers to conduct door-to-door surveys in Omaha, even though some Omaha census employees say they don’t have enough to do.
The Census Bureau expects to spend $42,311 on hotel rooms and food for the workers, who are from Lincoln and other Nebraska locations, said Russ Frum, assistant regional census manager in Denver.
He said there are “about 38” such workers. The Census Bureau expects to pay for 315 hotel room nights. That would work out to about eight nights per employee. Most started June 4. They’re scheduled to leave Friday.
The workers, known as enumerators, are knocking on doors to collect census data at households that did not mail back a 2010 Census form. They’re trying to catch people at home to ask them the census questions in person, or on the telephone. It’s what the census calls “nonresponse follow-up.”
Frum and an Omaha census official, Jackie McCabe, said the expense is justified. They said data collection was behind schedule in some areas, especially northeast Omaha.
“We have brought experienced people in to finish an area that did not appear was going to be finished on time,” said McCabe, local census office manager for Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties.
The out-of-town workers are Nebraskans, she said. Local managers had tried to find Omaha crews to complete the surveys in the areas that were behind, she said.
“From a management perspective, we did everything we could to staff it locally,” McCabe said.
However, some Omaha census workers said their crews weren’t asked to help catch up other areas that were further behind.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” enumerator Rich Burdick said of the census officials’ explanation.
Burdick said he works on a crew that’s almost done with its follow-up surveys. Last week, he put in about 20 hours, he said. This week, he’s working just two or three hours a day.
Burdick said he had been asked last week if he’d be willing to work more hours in another part of town. He said he answered that he would. He said he, as a crew leader assistant, spent one day last week overseeing a new enumerator working around 37th Street and Ames Avenue in north Omaha. But he wasn’t asked to do more, he said.
Another Omaha enumerator, Bob Smejkal, said he hadn’t been asked to work more hours, but he would be available to do so. His crew leader, Alan Nogg, referred questions to McCabe but said he had not been asked to work in north Omaha.
Another enumerator, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said he and the other nine or 10 members of his crew had only about five or 10 addresses left to check in their own areas. He said the crew was given books of addresses north of Dodge Street and east of 72nd Street to follow up on, but then was taken off the task after just one day, May 31.
McCabe said she didn’t know about those specific instances. But she said that no district of Omaha has completed all of its own “nonresponse follow-up” work. There may be some that are close enough to being done that they could help out elsewhere, she said, but the workers, because of other jobs or family or other commitments, weren’t willing to work enough hours to get the lagging areas caught up.
“If someone can give us two hours a day now, and two hours a day a day later, that’s not really what we needed,” McCabe said. “We needed a team of enumerators to come in and be dedicated full time to an area.”
The “nonresponse follow-up” phase is supposed to be done by July 11.
McCabe said there were about 85,000 households in Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties that did not mail back census forms. Many of those were in apartment complexes throughout the three-county area. Many that remained unresolved Wednesday were in northeast Omaha.
“We’re pretty close to being finished; I’d say about 90 percent,” she said.
That ranks Omaha 38th of the 40 areas in the Denver region, Frum said. Only two places — Albuquerque and Las Cruces, N.M. — are further from completing the “nonresponse follow-up” phase.
The census enumerator jobs are temporary work. They pay $14 an hour. So far, 1,022 people have put in hours in the three-county Omaha area, Frum said. The pool of workers now is down to about 900 — “extremely low compared to other areas.”
Frum said the three-county Omaha area was one of the toughest places to hire workers in the Denver region. Frum said 3,485 applicants had been determined as eligible to work — but 1,213 of them turned down job offers.
The workers brought into Omaha are managed from a Lincoln census office. Frum said that when the Census Bureau has to move teams into cities from elsewhere, it uses “the best people, the most energetic,” who have shown they can get the work done.
Plus, he said, it doesn’t hurt to have them in a hotel in a strange city, where they don’t have anything to do but work or watch TV.