More Census Worker Confessions

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Recently AOL reported on the experience of a census worker in a post titled Confessions of a Census Worker. After the article ran, many wrote in wanting to tell AOL their story about working for the U.S. Census Bureau. Our first story profiled some of the issues that Joe, a crew leader, experienced at the individual office level. This week we are reporting on Sam, a census worker with responsibilities at a regional level. Here is Sam's story.

Sam worked for the Census Bureau as a manager. He oversaw production operations and planned, managed, and monitored all updates on data collection in the field. Sam was responsible for a staff of 13 field operations supervisors, 96 crew leaders, 1,500 enumerators, and a full office staff. During his tenure with the Census Bureau, he witnessed several problems with the system.


Not enough hours in the day

As a member of management, Sam was responsible for overseeing the work of three shifts distributed over a 24-hour day, six to seven days per week. He had a team of 1,500 census workers knocking on doors from 8AM until 8PM and he was responsible for making sure that the necessary information was keyed into the computer systems for each shift, and then secured and packaged to ship to national distribution centers. He had to meet with his second shift supervisors and staff after his work day ended and he had to work with his third shift workers before his work day started. And even though Sam was paid hourly, overtime was virtually never approved, so he never got paid for more than 40 hours per week. In addition, he had to tell his field supervisors to distribute their time over a 12-hour period, so their total daily hours didn't exceed eight, but Sam believes this was unrealistic given the demands of the job.


Too many people

The 2010 census was supposed to be the first truly automated census, equipped with hand-held computer devices and data capture software to optimize the process of collecting information. But according to Sam, a breakdown in communications between the Census Bureau and the technology company they outsourced the automation to, coupled with a lot of finger pointing, led to more manual processes and people to manage those processes than ever expected. Office space had been rented and configured based on assumptions of fewer workers; but in the end, offices were housing triple or quadruple the number of people originally planned for those spaces, which led to poor working conditions. No additional space or equipment was authorized because such action would have created budget overruns. And yet even without appropriate resources, demands for project completion remained constant, which made the work environment quite stressful.


Not enough automation

What automation there was rarely worked properly, and computer crashes were commonplace. Problem fix times were protracted and yet the local census offices were held responsible for project completion on time and within budget without control over this element. It was so bad that the data collection for the first three operations Sam was a part of had to all be done manually and then put into a computer at a later date.


No best practices

"After 220 years of census taking, you would think someone would suggest creating notes every 10 years with best practices," says Sam. But apparently no such documentation existed. To make matters worse, in many cases training manuals were only available a few days before the operation started, so managers had to train people without having very much training or knowledge themselves. Many of the census workers Sam encountered were professionals with advanced degrees and 20-plus years of business experience. Yet whenever anyone made a suggestion on how to improve a process, their ideas fell on deaf ears. Sam recalls one incident where the computer system only allowed workers to process information in small batches, and if a worker attempted to process more information at one time, the system would crash. He made a recommendation on how to fix the system so it could process more information at a time. But upper management ignored his suggestion and instead just reminded workers to only process information in the smaller (and less efficient) batches.


Heavy-handed management

Sam observed numerous examples of disrespect, bullying, public admonishment, and threats during his time as a census employee. Threats to get the job done or be terminated (but don't put in for any overtime) were common. And since many of the census workers were desperate to maintain their income, they put up with a lot. Sam was told to write up an employee that he didn't believe deserved a writeup, and when he expressed his opinion, he was told to either write up the employee or be terminated.


Lack of employee advocacy

Sam recalls one incident where a census worker who was berated in front of his co-workers sent an e-mail to the human resources department to complain about his treatment. After it went unanswered, he sent a follow up e-mail. On his third try, the e-mail was returned as "undeliverable," suggesting that the HR department decided to block his e-mails rather than deal with his complaint. He resigned soon after.


Insufficient hiring practices

Applicants for census jobs are required to take a test. If they pass that test, they are then put into a pool and asked questions about their competencies and abilities. Some of the questions asked include Are you computer literate? and Are you able to move 35 pounds? The problem is, many applicants exaggerated their abilities and couldn't perform the required tasks consistently once they got on the job.


Safety hazards

For those who claimed they could lift 35 pounds, there was no training on how to lift things safely. Nor were there back support belts or any other safety equipment. Some of the jobs with the census using pallet jackets and warehousing materials, but there was no safety training for this job either.

Sam believes that many of the issues he encountered could have been mitigated if the Census Bureau's permanent staff in Maryland had been more involved in the audit and oversight of the staff. But according to Sam, it appeared that the only thing that mattered was the numbers and completion on time and within budget. He reflects, "rarely does the end justify the means, but the headquarters office was oblivious to what was going on in the field."

Next: Confessions of a Census Worker >>


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