I work for the payroll department in my LCO. I wanted to explain some things about how Census payroll works and why people are getting paid late. I would appreciate if my name were left out of this, but feel free to publish some or all of the information contained below.
As you may know, in order to get paid for a day’s work a Census employee must submit a daily payroll form that we lovingly refer to as a “308.” The 308 contains several redundancies to help catch potential errors. For instance, the employee must mark both the date worked and the day of the week worked, and if these do not match the 308 will not be processed until the office can determine what date the employee actually worked. The employee also must enter the number of hours worked and the times worked, and if these do not match the employee will be paid for the lesser of the two numbers. Finally any expenses incurred must be explained and any over $5 must be accompanied by a receipt; in order to save taxpayer dollars we regularly reject claims for ridiculous things that the employee does not need to complete their assignment.
The reasons that we’re having so much delayed payroll come down to the problems with processing these time sheets. First of all, as I mentioned before, if there are any errors with a paysheet, that sheet may be placed into a problem file to be dealt with later. Ideally we deal with all problem 308s in their appropriate pay period, but the first three weeks of NRFU were not ideal. You’ve heard of all the paperwork new employees have to fill out? All of that has to be processed by the admin department *before* an employee can be paid. Admin departments basically had to begin processing one to two thousand hiring packets plus five to ten thousand pay sheets starting at the end of the first day of training and be finished by the following Monday. For many LCOs, that just didn’t happen. That’s why we all put in overtime that week – to try to get as many people paid as possible.
Now, from the perspective of someone whose job it is to process paysheets, the thing about problem 308s is that some are very easy to deal with and some are very difficult, but almost none of them would exist if the employees themselves took the time to fill these things out right. Everyone who works for the census was tested on the ability to read and count and everyone who works for the census was hired basically to enter information on forms, and filling out pay sheets does not require any skills beyond these. And yet we continuously have problems with people who apparently cannot count to 40 – who either claim overtime with under 40 hours a week worked, or claim no overtime with more than 40 hours a week worked. We continue having problems with people who apparently cannot glance at a calendar long enough to verify both the date and the day of the week. So while we try to get these errors fixed, a large portion of the employees who are getting paid late are being delayed because they made mistakes on their paperwork that we cannot easily deal with.
Of course the other problem we’re facing is that we can’t process payroll that we don’t have. I’ve heard numerous stories of FOSes and CLs who don’t submit 308s on time. I understand from the Crew Leaders’ position that they have a lot to do, but most of our CLs get their 308s in on time. The maybe 5% who don’t account for 90% of the phone calls we get from enumerators who have missed several days’ pay from their checks.
This is a personnel problem. We simply don’t have a good way to motivate large numbers of temporary employees to do their jobs promptly and correctly. Every job has its share of lazy or incompetent employees. The Census does work to terminate these, but if we have to give each CL who brings payroll in late (or never) at least two warnings, that’s at least three weeks of delayed payroll before we can replace the person, which is why we’re getting stories from across the country of whole crews who haven’t been paid for two or three weeks of working. Rumor around the office has it that the terminations for unsatisfactory performance are going to start coming fast and furious starting next week, although we’ve already got a decent pile going now.
Now, the admin department gets well over a hundred calls a week inquiring about missing hours or days. In the vast, overwhelming majority of cases – including every single call I have personally handled – these hours or days are already processed and on their way to the employee on the next pay period. I understand that it is difficult for many people, especially those whose only job is the Census, to have to wait three weeks instead of two to be paid for a particular day’s work. Some people may be counting on being paid on time. I think that the situation would have been helped immensely if we had issued a blanket disclaimer at training or even during the hiring process that it is normal for it to take up to four weeks to be paid for any particular day worked. Somehow, people formed an expectation that a gigantic government bureaucracy staffed entirely by people with virtually no experience would be fast and efficient at handling paperwork, which makes me wonder if none of these employees who are calling us up or going to the media because their pay is a week late have ever tried to mail a letter or get a driver’s license. Anyhow, we try to stay cheerful but a certain fatalism develops when all we can do is tell people, essentially, that their check is in the mail.
I can say that fortunately our department is now caught up with payroll on a weekly basis, and it is only when CLs or FOSes bring 308s in late that we process them late. However, payroll is already on a delayed basis by design – so if I work on a Monday, that 308 gets processed by the LCO and “closed” the following Monday, which means that a direct deposit will be issued the week after that, usually on a Wednesday – a delay of up to 17 days. So people who missed hours on their last paycheck were actually missing hours for the week of May 9-15 – which was basically the second week of actual work, and third week of employment, and at that point we had many but not all of our glitches ironed out. By that point we had issued directives to FOSes and CLs about how and when to fill out and bring in 308s and started getting positive responses, which should be reflected in even fewer errors in next week’s checks.
However, the heart of this issue is actually in how the Census approaches the hiring process. While the recruiting process stretches over two years, the hiring process is basically crammed into a week. Queens LCOs had to hire 1600 – 2200 employees over the week of April 19th, for a training session that started April 26th. This has obvious problems. First of all, we were asking people – many of whom had taken the test months ago, in the fall or even summer – to drop everything and come in for training with a week’s (or in some cases, a day’s) notice. This is pointless and disrespectful and also resulted in the loss of many promising candidates. Basically, we weeded out everyone who had a job, or responsibilities, or the ability to plan, or the self-respect to demand to be treated courteously by an employer; then we hired whoever was left. Certainly we found some people who were competent and hard-working and just down on their luck or hit by the economy, but the overall caliber of employees is lower than what it would have been if we had given people adequate notice or contacted them in a timely fashion after they took their test.
The second problem is, as I have said, the logistical difficulty of processing 2000 new hires at once. If we had hired people on some kind of rolling basis we could have gotten their paperwork filed and their payroll started up before they had to start working. If we had started hiring and taking care of administrative matters in, say, March or even April 1st, as most test-takers were promised, then we could have gotten people trained, processed, and into payroll before NRFU even began. This would have eased the burden on admin, but also on NRFU and the people who had to get training sites for thousands of people all during one week. This would also have reduced the number of people who were verbally hired but never contacted again, or who attended training but were never assigned a CL, or who were assigned a CL but never any work.
Also, there simply has to be a less resource-intensive way to handle payroll than having each employee hand a piece of paper to their CL each day, to be handed to the FOS each day, to be brought into the office each day, to then be audited by one clerk and then entered into the payroll system by another clerk and then sent to a different agency entirely for final processing. We did payroll exactly the same way in the 2000 Census, and guess what? We’ve had ten years and the internet since then. We have secure banking, we have ebay, amazon, paypal (all of which, I realize, we also had in 2000). Why can’t we have a server that the employee can log on to to enter their information; that the CL can log on to to approve the hours worked and digitally sign; that can automate the auditing process and eliminate the need for a separate data entry process? I believe I was promised a paperless society when this whole internet thing started, so what gives?
In short, we in payroll are struggling to get everyone’s pay processed correctly and on time, but the system for doing so is incredibly inefficient, incapable of surviving the level of human error presented by barely-trained temporary Census employees, and compressed into a set of arbitrary and irrational time-frames that make actual prioritization of tasks or long-term planning impossible. So some of us are doing the best we can, some people aren’t doing well at all, and are being fired ASAP, but ultimately I think we have to blame the planners. There’s really nothing any of us on the ground can do to remedy the systemic problems that come from an unnecessarily paper-heavy and error-prone operation in which everything is rushed and the right hand never seems to know what the left hand is doing.