Friday, February 5, 2010

U.S. Census Training: Days I & II

Simple sentiment: Life can be a tedious day-to-day bore—or the potentially bland can be whipped into an adventure. I intend to employ the latter with this new, albeit short-lived chapter as a spanking new employee of the U.S. Census. Actually, allow me be more specific: my “time-limited temporary appointment with a non-specific Not To Exceed (NTW) date,” to put it in government terms.

I began my first of three days training Wednesday, 2:30-11 p.m., on Fulton Street in a facility that houses Social Security, among numerous other fed agencies. Ironically, it’s the same space where I checked in for unemployment benefits in mid-2009, and a hasty 20-minute walk from home.

* The nabe: Baby, even though it’s a click clip from Brooklyn Heights to the office, this is serious BK… downtown Brooklyn. I walk along Fulton Street Mall, a half-mile passage packed with no-name stores that peddle mobile phones, hip-hop clothing, wigs, electronics and cheap kid’s clothing, interspersed with name-brand retailers like Foot Locker, Macys, McDonalds, Rite Aid and Arbys. It actually resembles old-school Manhattan. It also marks a razor-precise racial divide between the painfully white-dominant Heights where I live and a more traditional racial mix that predominates the other side of Court Street—the dividing line between Brooklyn Heights and downtown.

* The Census office: Obviously, the U.S. Census takes place once every 10 years, so this operation, part of the Department of Commerce, is a temp set-up. While Census operations were in gear as early as July 2009, no one I’ve met has been in place longer than six or so months. The office setting is on the top floor of a building predominated by Social Security, and it is essentially one large bullpen… populated with “boats,” the lingo for conference tables lined up for staffers. Some stations have computers, but it was made clear that no one has Internet access: PCs only access the Census database. There’s a conference room, storage room, small eating area with microwave, but no semblance of anyone setting up shop for the long-term. All the same, I definitely sense camaraderie. Today, for example, one employee was leaving; he’s Haitian and was heading home to help rebuild. Staff gathered to wish him well, with cake. There are two shifts, at present: a seemingly traditional 9-5 and a 5'ish-midnight.

* The handful of people I've connected with have savvy histories, since they are all temp. I’ve met four or five, to the point of memorizing names. “D,” a 50-something-year-old woman of color, oozes fabulosity. She’s a manager, had her own business for 17 years, and is planning to open a garden center come late spring. “C,” an office supervisor, worked for PepsiCo. “I,” the 27-year-old that is training me, is a full-time student, who attends classes all morning, and serves as office supervisor at night. “R,” a 50-something year old white dude, is obviously well-educated, and couldn’t have been kinder, showing me around and already calling me by name... (Yes, I've already gotten multiple chuckles over Chuck Taylor and the Converse shoe reference, but hey, whatever connects my name to memory is a good thing). From all I’ve seen, it’s a gratifyingly diverse collective of folks who are much like me: in transition, thankful for work, making the best of a situation that has an obvious start-to-finish.

* My role: I am training as a crew leader, which, as I understand, is not an office job. I'll be in the field—likely close my nabe—assigning an assemblage of workers to initiate interviews in an effort to count every resident in a given area, then I present their completed surveys to my manager. 

* I will also be in the field, following up on “problem” interviews, meeting with each “enumerator”—or surveyor—daily, and checking in with my supervisor to make sure all ground is covered. What I didn't realize is that the Census goal is to count every person… not a random sample. There are multiple safeguards in place to follow up on follow ups upon follow ups. Simply not responding is not acceptable. The mandate is to chase down every resident of the U.S., period.

* So... Day one of training, Wednesday, I pretty much spent eight hours hearing about federal law and policy. EEO, sexual harassment, explanation of NO FEAR: The Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act… personal safety measures, walking alone, vehicle safety and—my favorite, dealing with dogs: “Face the animal without making direct eye contact and back away slowly. Be submissive, but do not run.” Are you  kidding me? My take: high-tail my ass out of there.

* In addition, on Wednesday, I was finger-printed and sworn in to follow federal guidelines and safeguards. Two essential points were driven home a dozen-plus times: You will not work overtime, and all information collected is confidential—or you face federal fines and potential jail time. Believe me, I’m won't be dishing here about John and Jane Doe.

* On Thursday, night two, my first directive focused on the Census’ count of GQ—or group quarters—surveying facilities that house transients: soup kitchens, mobile food vans, homeless shelters, health care facilities and… most intense and disheartening, areas identified within the jurisdiction where homeless people “reside.” An initiative is targeted specifically on March 31, from midnight to 7 a.m., where Census staffers (around the nation) will canvas parks, under bridges, subway stations, vacant buildings and the like to tally those with no permanent address. In this instance, we simply count live bodies. Talk about a reality check.

* Following, on April 1, the U.S. Census will mail ballots to every U.S. address, asking for info. Those that don’t follow up will receive follow-up after follow-up, explaining that this exercise is wholly anonymous, with no repercussions for illegal immigrants, those living in unsafe conditions and the like. The ultimate goal: identify and classify every person residing in the United States, which will A) determine, most obviously, those municipalities where the most people reside B) redefine Congressional districts, based on population C) assist in federal, state and city aid, and D) determine how population/racial and cultural diversity has evolved since 2000.

* Expectations: It appears I’m on board for the near future, which I’m real happy about. No promises—staffers work for eight weeks at a time, no benefits, then are offered renewal for another eight weeks, although there may be breaks where you’re simply not called upon to work—but hopefully I will log 20-30 hours a week, at least through April 1, until the GQ—group quarters—directive is fulfilled. After that, no guarantee, but then the next step begins: the more traditional count of every resident in every building on every block.
I was able to study the maps that break down Brooklyn—which as you might imagine is an enormous jurisdiction. Imagine the effort required to tally everyone residing in each apartment building, within every unit. Well-tread stat: If it weren’t part of New York City, by itself, Brooklyn proper is more populated than San Francisco, the fourth-largest city in the U.S.

* So on Friday, I have my third and final day of training as a crew leader—again, covering only the most immediate initiative of counting GQ—group quarters. (I mentioned early on to my trainer, “I’m assuming that we’re not talking about GQ, the gentlemen’s fashion magazine, yes?”). Come April, if I am fortunate to continue, an entire new round of training will ensue about the (seemingly) more direct task of door-to-door residential interviews of those who neglected to mail in their Census surveys. How fun does that sound? “Knock, knock,” with the potential to nose into the homes of hundreds of neighbors?

* Adventure? I’m checking the “Yes” box in bold on that one. Stand by for more, cool cats… sans any confidential information. Did I mention that the fine is up to $250,000 and five years in prison? All the same, hope you’ll join for the ride. This is cool, huh?