Confessions of a Census Worker

census jobsPeople from all walks of life have applied for bureau census jobs as a way to earn some extra cash, keep busy, or bridge the gap between unemployment and their next gig. And while many may be grateful to have the additional income, for some the money is not enough of a motivator to keep them there for long.

I recently spoke with one census worker to get the inside scoop on his experience working for the Census Bureau.

The application process

The census worker I spoke to, "Joe," completed an application via the U.S. Census Bureau website and then took a census worker test to measure the skills, abilities, and knowledge required to perform a number of different census jobs. Joe found the test to be exceptionally easy, with most problems requiring simple math or common-sense problem solving. Joe also had to undergo a fairly extensive background check that included an FBI screening and fingerprinting. (See Census Test Taking Tips.)

The job

The Census Bureau offers five positions: census taker (also called enumerator), census crew leader, census crew leader assistant, census recruiter, and census clerk.

Joe was assigned a job as a census crew leader, with 12 enumerators reporting to him. His role was to train and supervise the enumerators and assistant crew leader, meet with census workers daily to review their assignments and approve their daily payroll records, and ensure that census procedures were followed. (See The 411 on Census Bureau Jobs.)

Sounds straightforward enough. But the reality was that coordinating schedules was cumbersome since some of the workers didn't have e-mail and he had to play phone tag to get in touch with them. Plus the amount of time needed to manage all of the administrative work far exceeded the 40 hours per week Joe was getting paid for. He quickly found himself working 8- to 10-hour days, seven days a week just to keep up. His $20.25 hourly salary started looking a lot less appealing when he was working 70 hours but getting paid for only 40.

The training

Joe's first hint that this wasn't going to be the type of professional environment he had come to expect in the workplace, occurred during his first days of training. "The supervisor who led the training treated us like fifth-graders," he remembers.

Joe thought he could deal with his supervisor's abrasive and condescending attitude for the four to eight weeks of the assignment, but it turns out that he couldn't. Anytime Joe gave his supervisor something that needed to be revised, his supervisor curtly shoved the paperwork back at him, telling him it was incorrect, but never offering to explain why. Joe suggested that his supervisor explain what was incorrect, so he could learn from his mistake, but his supervisor was never willing to clue him in on what needed to be changed.

The system

Joe wasn't expecting the Census Bureau to have cutting-edge technology and resources for gathering information, but he admits he was surprised by just how antiquated and error-prone the process was. Census workers are required to complete forms in pencil, which seemed odd to Joe because this would make it incredibly easy for anyone to change information and compromise the integrity of the data. Workers were collecting data in binders; nothing was computerized. Schedules for his early morning training as a crew leader were often not finalized until 11:30PM the night before. It was required that all time sheets be signed in black ink, yet the office only ordered pens with blue ink.

The comedy of errors goes on and on -- and Joe was left shaking his head each night as he came home exhausted after putting in a 10-hour day managing a system that appears to be broken.

The aftermath

After just a few weeks, Joe decided he'd had enough and resigned from his position. The very next day, a census worker from his crew rang his doorbell and said he had not yet filled out his census questionnaire and she was there to gather his information. Joe knew this was an error as he had already completed his questionnaire. He noticed the enumerator was holding many questionnaires for other tenants in his apartment building, yet he knew from his previous work with the bureau that there were very few outstanding questionnaires from tenants in his building.

Weeks after he resigned, Joe received multiple calls from representatives at the bureau following up on some aspect of his census work. So far he has had to make three separate phone calls to remind them that he no longer works there. And each time he hangs up the phone he is once again left shaking his head in disbelief.

Next:The 411 on Census Bureau Jobs

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