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

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

I took the census test, scored high + received some bonus points for having been honorably discharged from the Army.

What bummed me out was that I did get a call asking if I could come in for a position. I said sure, then they asked if I spoke fluent Spanish...well, no! I was told that they'd have to call someone who spoke Spanish, but due to my high score, surely I'd get a never happened, surprise!

I've had high level management positions and employed, enjoyed Hispanic workers. But not being selected for the census because I didn't speak Spanish seemed un-American to me.

July 27 2010 at 9:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am sick to death about people's comments about doing the forms in pencil. The goal when you are at the door asking questions is to get done and out of their face as soon as possible. So, I just wrote in my usual handwriting. When I left I would make corrections on the letters that I don't usually write the way they like. Such as they wanted Es to be like this typed E, but my Es look like a backwards 3. They wanted Is to have the lines at the top and bottom. I didn't want to take the time at someones door to write like that. And you could make a mistake in the spelling of a name, or write something else wrong and just erase and correct it. It would be crazy to do it in ink and then mark through everything.
They are ANAL about the confidentiality of the census information!!! If you had a form or time sheet that wasn't being turned in, it had to be SHREDDED, not just thrown in the garbage. There was no way that anybody in the census was going to change information on a questionaire!

July 01 2010 at 12:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sounds to me like Bob is a whiner and made up some things to try to make his story better.
As for CBeth'09, I'm in a rural area of the same state and we were in no way encouraged to do anything but keep perfect records of our time worked and exact mileage. Matter of fact, during the first phase of the work, the little hand held computers with GPS that we used, pretty well kept track of the mileage used and everything from what time we left home and what time we got everywhere else, and back home again. After that phase, it was pretty much honor system but carefully reviewed by our team leader before she signed it. Same with the notebooks and papers we had to fill out to do with each house we went to. If something was not just right, it was caught and corrected before being mailed to the bureau.
Anyone thinking the Census is a waste of time or taxpayer or federal dollars must not realize that it's from that information that our federal benefits are doled out for our citys' schools, the elderly, and many other benefits for each area. And for those who are unwilling to cooperate as they're required to do by law, I can only say that you therefore have no right to complain about how anything is where you live. I totally enjoyed working for the Census but would have liked for it to have lasted longer.

June 28 2010 at 10:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I worked for the census this year and quit after a month because of my crew leader. He was so rude. I am a retiree. I am also a college graduate and have a MA so I am not stupid. He called me on the phone one day and just started yelling and making demands. Needlessly to say, I ignored him and on Monday turned in all of my equipment. I do not know what type of screening they utilize for who got what type of job, but obviously they put him in the wrong type of job

June 27 2010 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

IHOPE BY POOR YOUR NOT TALKING ABOUT MEXICAN'S........ I knew I should not have replied to a blog, I almost never respond to blogs cuz of wackos like you that never actually ever read what I said, I never mentioned the word Mexican, so you must be "looking" for a fight, but your not going to get one, cuz you may end up hallucinating, and making up your own storys of my meaning. So I leave you to your wacko self. Have a good life, if you can do it with out making up stories that people "must" be talking about Mexicans when they mention the word poor.

June 22 2010 at 10:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I worked for the Census as an Enumerator in Denver. WORSE JOB I EVER HAD. I had been unemployed for almost a year so I felt this job would be a god send. It turned out to be the worst thing ever. My direct deposit was screwed up, I ended up missing out on the last week of work, had all my work taken from me, then didn't even get paid until after I was fired. Some bull. All because I demanded to be paid. Now they are harrassing about their bags and papers but really? come on? you think I want to be bullied some more. Sorry I'm too busy trying to dig myself out of the hole the CENSUS put me in.

June 14 2010 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I found this to be a very intersting site. I am currently a manager with the Census Bureau and some of the tails here are pretty accurate while others are way out in left field as they say. I should write a book on the in's and out's of the Census when I am done.

The things I have seen over the past two years would make for really good reading or maybe a movie.

June 14 2010 at 2:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The horror stories about the US Census Bureau management are TRUE! Yes, that's TRUE. If you're lucky, you will get a considerate and humane Field Operations Supervisor - like the first one I had. Then he left, and everything turned sour. The erroneous reports given to us said my crew was only 30% complete when we were to be 50% complete. The count of questionaires left in my enumerator's possession showed we
were about 60% complete. My new FSO acted like I was talking to the wind - not him. I was relieved a week later due to underproduction of my crew. Don't bother Census management with third grade arithmetic - or the truth. Who got over $20 an hour - Crew Leaders in Denton County, TX got $15.50/hr....

June 13 2010 at 4:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
star struck

I was a crew leader assistant. Email is not a requirement. It is a luxury that can only be used to set up meetings. playing phone tag is part of the game, as most enumerators were actually working in the field, not sitting at their desks at home. "Joe" had a bad FOS. Mine was not that bad, always willing to answer questions. And ink on payroll had to be blue or black. If the crew leader was over worked it was because he wasn't using his crew leader assistants like he should have. The only thing an assistant can't do is sign off on payroll forms and questionaires. Otherwise, they could have met with the enumerators, gone over the paper work with them to insure accuracy and then handed them off to the crew leader, they can even meet with the FOS if the crew leader is out of hours. Some of the questionares get returned and the people who had their census done have to have it verified, meaning that they get contacted again, by a different enumerator, to make sure the information is accurate. The job of enumerating did take a bit of detective work, and not all were up to the task. But all in all, it was not a bad experience, and I am looking forward to working the next one.

June 13 2010 at 8:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was a crew leader in 2009. These were my suggestions that recieved a bureaucratic response from the Census Bureau. They missed the point of the letter and just put up a defensive posture. I refused their offer to come back in 2010.

A “Grass Roots” Evaluation of the First Phase Operations
of Census 2010

This evaluation of the United States Census Bureau’s Address Canvassing stage (April 1-April 30, 2009) is provided from a “grass roots” perspective as one who actually conducted the address canvassing on the ground as a Crew Leader of 17 Enumerators in Northern Pinal County in the State of Arizona (Local Census District 3115/0905) . It is offered with the expectation that it can be of value in institution building for the future field personnel and be incorporated into competent management planning for the future. I hope that it is viewed as constructive criticism rather than complaint venting as we learn from our failures. Recommendations appear in text boxes and bold-typed.)
I came to the 2010 Census as a retired Federal Official (GS-15) who served as a twenty five year veteran with the Drug Enforcement Administration. I sought an enumerator position but was finally selected as a Crew Leader (CL) because of the location where I lived and my score on their entrance examination (94). I was originally assigned as a Crew Leader Assistant (CLA) since the original Crew Leader received a score of 97, but she resigned after assessing the expected workload and for other personal reasons.
The Local Census District is identified as 3115 (Phoenix Metropolitan Area and surrounding suburbs) and my assigned area was the sub-area of 0905 which encompasses approximately 125 square miles. This area is categorized as Urban/Rural versus Urban. The Local Census District Office assigned one crew to this area even though by all common knowledge it was one of the fastest growing areas in the country. In 2000, the Housing Units (HU’s) in the area were approximately 7500 and now the Census Bureau assigned 22,000 Housing Units as their estimate. I do not know how this estimate was calculated. My personal calculations came in at about 32,000 with an additional 5000 unrecorded because of computer mapping software deficiencies.

I was told that we had eight weeks to complete the work which would begin on March 30th after the training session of one week and the goal was established of 9 Housing Units per hour per enumerator for the area of 0905 (Urban/Rural). Other Urban areas were 13 per hour. In reality, this would mean a 35 hour week since travel and required breaks reduced the work week. This model made 315 HU’s per enumerator or 4725 per crew per week as the goal. Thus, 22000 HU’s for the area could be accomplished in 24 work days or specifically, April 29th. This is the day that the area was completed but their model was significantly miscalculated. The actual figure should have been 14.

So what went wrong and what is its significance?
The origins of the problem require a complete examination of the whole process. The actual Housing Units should be around 32,000 with another 5000 unrecorded (because of the software mapping deficiency). If we had been given the eight weeks and the Hand Held Computers (HHC’s) were functioning normally then 14 Units per hour equals 98 per day equals 490 per enumerator per week and 7350 per crew per week for Urban/Rural areas like Area 0905 and even this could be accomplished in 5 weeks (37000/7350 = 25 work day.)

The serious deficiency was the demonstration projects that established the base ratio of 9 HU’s for urban/rural Areas and 13 for urban areas. This resulted in a 300 to 400 million dollar miscalculation thus inflating budget requests. Management stated that it was due to the great success of the HHC’s that the task of Address Canvassing was accomplished in half the time, but that misses the real point. (It should be noted that the HHC’s were working as a snail’s pace during the fourth week because the units could not handle the large data file storage and transmissions and would have crashed if the project went further than four weeks.) It was the establishment of these initial ratios that drove the whole process and they were off by at least 50 percent according to my local perspective but the possibility exists that the percentage is much higher but I lack the access to national figures to determine the real percentage.

If the Census Bureau had accurate ratio’s to establish their budget and performance goals then they could have hired 350,000 people versus 600,000 and purchased 250,000 HHC’s rather than

June 12 2010 at 7:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Search Articles

Picks From the Web