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.

Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’

Does this lawsuit against the Census Bureau have legitimacy? Perhaps

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

H/t to former MyTwoCensus editor Emily Babay for informing me of the following lawsuit filed against the Census Bureau for its hiring practices. The Philadelphia Inquirer brings us the following:

Phila. woman at center of census lawsuit

By Jane M. Von Bergen

Paying $17.75 an hour, U.S. Census jobs, though temporary, are attractive in an economy where unemployment is stuck at 9.7 percent. But the Census Bureau’s screening policies, designed to safeguard the public, end up discriminating against minorities, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

That’s because the bureau has set up an “arbitrary barrier to employment” for any person with an arrest record, “no matter how trivial or disconnected from the requirements of the job,” the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan, says. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is named as the defendant.

The national suit, filed by Outten & Golden L.L.P. in New York and a coalition of public-interest organizations, seeks class-action status on behalf of those turned down for a job if they were arrested and not convicted, or convicted for an offense irrelevant to the job.

“The U.S. Census Bureau’s top priority is the safety of both our workforce and the American public,” Commerce Department spokesman Nicholas Kimball responded. “Americans must be confident that, if . . . a census taker must come to their door to count them, we’ve taken steps to ensure their safety.”

Kimball declined to comment on the suit.

One of the two lead plaintiffs, Evelyn Houser, 69, of North Philadelphia, thinks she is qualified to fill one of the 1.2 million census positions. That’s because Houser worked for the census before, in 1990.

“What’s the difference between then and now?” she asked in an interview Tuesday. “It’s like a slap in the face.”

The difference, said her lawyer, Sharon Dietrich with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, is the government’s cumbersome screening process.

Computers kick back any application with an arrest record, requiring more documentation, but the Census Bureau doesn’t make it clear what documentation is required, Dietrich said.

The discrimination occurs because the arrest and conviction rates of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans exceed those of whites, the suit says. Compounding the problem, it says, is that one in three arrests do not lead to prosecution or conviction, yet the bureau’s system does not readily distinguish between arrests and convictions.

“The processes are screening out any kind of criminal case, no matter what,” Dietrich said.

“If you were arrested years ago for a minor offense, you are asked to comply with the same burdensome process as if you had been released from jail last week after committing a murder,” she said,

Plaintiffs’ attorney Samuel Miller, of Outten & Golden, estimates that as many as one million applicants may have been caught up in the process, with tens of thousands unfairly deterred or excluded from employment.

In 1981, Houser was a 39-year-old mother raising four children on welfare and food stamps. Her monthly check was several days away, but she was out of food when, going outside to take out the trash, she found a check next to the Dumpster.

“I went home and told my kids, ‘God sent me a piece of paper that says we’re going to eat tonight.’ ”

Houser shouldn’t have done it, but she tried to cash the check. She was arrested. Instead of being convicted, she was placed in alternative rehabilitation program. Her record remains clean, Dietrich said.

In 1990, Houser got a job with the census. Last year, she decided to apply again and passed a qualifying test.

A month or so later, the Census Bureau sent her a letter, asking her for documentation. The way she read it, her fingerprints would suffice, so she had them taken and sent them in the next day.

The bureau rejected her because, it said, she hadn’t sent the right documentation. Dietrich called the bureau’s communications confusing.

Since then, Houser has been involved in a long appeals process, which culminated in the filing of the suit.

Houser, who lives in subsidized housing, estimated that 25 percent of her working-age neighbors are unemployed. They are “just existing,” she said. “It’s just survival.”

She’s helping her neighbors find a path to employment, Houser said. “I’m a little gray-haired old lady and I’m trying to lead them in a better way.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer: Census Bureau vexes ex-newswoman, others who counted on a job

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

Today, Daniel Rubin’s column in The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s discussed Laura Mansnerus’ MyTwoCensus opinion piece that detailed her experiences working for the U.S. Census Bureau:

Census Bureau vexes ex-newswoman, others who counted on a job

One of the underreported consequences of the newspaper industry’s collapse is what happens when grumpy truth seekers have to find work in the Real World.

Exhibit A: What occurred when former New York Timeswoman Laura Mansnerus took a seasonal job in Philadelphia as a supervisor for the U.S. Census Bureau.

She blogged about her experience last week on MyTwoCensus.com. It’s a cautionary tale of bad math, black ice, and moose warnings.

We talked about her great misadventure over coffee at Cafe Lutecia by her home near Fitler Square. She began by referring me to a 1971 study of Parisian office workers that found the biggest complainers were those who were most engaged in their work.

This tends to be true in newspapering as well, noted Mansnerus, who worked for the Times for 22 years, most recently as a reporter in Trenton. “People are constantly saying to superiors, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’ You don’t get punished for that. People might think you’re a jerk, but people understand that the reason we’re there is because we are crabby people.” Crabby but effective, in theory.

This, she said, is not the culture of the Census Bureau.

Back in January, she answered an ad on Craigslist Philadelphia for census takers. She had just finished a fellowship with the Open Society Institute, and was writing a book proposal to expand her research into the way New Jersey law treats sexually violent predators.

She welcomed the idea of walking around Philadelphia all spring, counting things. “How beautiful!” she thought.

A few weeks after she took a test at a South Philly rec center, she was hired as a supervisor for $19.25 an hour. The person on the phone told her she’d work between 10 and 12 weeks, Mansnerus said. She figured on pocketing as much as $10,000 before taxes. Her goverment career was over before she knew it.

It wasn’t just that she and her boss got along like cats and dogs, as she put it. (She was the cat.) And it wasn’t that she told her boss once to shut up, though she did.

Her problem was the numbers.

The assignment was address canvassing, which is necessary before 2010 census forms are mailed out next March.

Crew leaders were assigned assistants – called listers. Mansnerus had 17 people working under her initially. Their job was to walk around and figure out where people were living.

She was startled to look at the number of addresses she had been given to verify. The whole job looked as if it could be knocked off in a week or two. When she questioned her supervisor – divide the number of workers by the number of addresses, she suggested – he didn’t see her point.

“I think your math is a little off there,” he told her.

Her people were finishing their second week of canvassing when the worked dried up. A couple of hundred temps across the city met similar fates. “People had put their kids in day care,” she said. “People really thought they could pay some bills for a few months.”

At a meeting where crew leaders were hoping to hear that the bureau would find more work, they received a memo from regional director Fernando Armstrong stressing the importance of deadlines.

They were also given information sheets to hand out that she suspected were boilerplate, since they warned of the dangers of black ice and moose. No more work materialized. Neither did black ice or moose. Listers who needed to reopen their unemployment claims asked if the bureau would write letters to certify they were out of work. No.

I asked Armstrong if it was true the bureau had hired too many people for too little work, as Mansnerus contends. He said he didn’t know.

“Assuming what she describes is accurate, it is not unique,” he said. “We have other areas that have a similar situation.”

As for Mansnerus, she figures this might be her last hurrah with Uncle Sam. “We were just cells,” she said, “that showed up on someone’s performance sheet.”

She took leave of her newspaper job once before to go to law school, clerk for a judge, then prosecute environmental polluters for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But newspapers drew her back in. When her fellowship ended last summer, she looked at what was happening in the industry and called it a career.

The loss of people like her in newsrooms is a tragedy whose magnitude we have yet to fully appreciate – all that talent sitting idle. It’s not easy to change a bureaucracy like the Census Bureau when you’re just another of its numbers.

Note: This article does not represent the opinions of MyTwoCensus.com, Stephen Robert Morse or Evan Goldin. The views expressed are those of the author. That said, MyTwoCensus welcomes written, video, photographic, and multimedia contributions from any individual with a 2010 Census-related story to tell.