Saturday, May 8, 2010

Census Report: Knock, Knock!

Remember that girl in class whose arm was incessantly wagging? No matter how clear the teacher’s instructions, how rudimentary the lesson, "Missy" conjured a reason to raise her hand in the air, refusing to cease fire until Teach relented… for the fifth time that hour.

I can report that she is alive and well, living here in Brooklyn—and in fact, training for the U.S. Census. And yes, she’s still as goddamn annoying. Still convinced that her inane questions are going to make her look smart. Still terrified that if she doesn’t bat her damn arm about every 10 minutes, she’ll never be noticed. Still provoking fantasies of chasing her down a dark alley and tying her arms in a knot over her head.

Whoops, that last part wasn’t supposed to escape my inside voice. Please pardon me.

It’s been a month since I’ve checked in about my temp gig(gle) with the U.S. Census Bureau. When last we spoke, I was in the midst of my role as a Crew Leader for Group Quarters Enumeration (GQE), tallying residents of mental institutions, dorms, shelters, rectories and other religious organizations—including the gargantuan Watchtower, Jehovah Witnesses' worldwide base here in Brooklyn Heights. That was the peak accomplishment with my GQ crew, as we spent 10 hours one Saturday filling out ICRs—Individual Census Reports—based on a roster of 2,000 residents (thankfully) furnished by the organization.

And the good news: With GQ wrapped, I’ve been renewed for the NRFU—Non-Response Follow-Up—operation, which is likely to keep me employed through June. Thank you, feds! This is the biggie, the one that all of the national ads point to: If you failed to return that questionnaire you got in the mail, we shall hunt you down, knock on your door and gather information about you and your peeps.

It’s all in good fun: to help your community configure congressional districts and foster federal funds that trickle down to your very neighborhood. And the best part is, we’re real, real persistent. No matter how uncool or bothersome you might consider those five minutes yapping with us, “no” is simply not an option, tee hee.

The operation in my Brooklyn district is enormous. For GQ, there were 12 Crew Leaders with Enumerator staffs of about a dozen, around 144 folks. For NRFU, there are 70 Crew Leaders with a dozen enumerators: totaling 840 Census workers rapping on doors.

As you can imagine, training for the op was a major endeavor. When I taught GQ Enumerators with fellow Crew Leader T, we had 23 hires in our class. Toward the end of April, I assisted at the Masonic Temple in lovely Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where 120 new hires gathered for three days to learn the minutia of NRFU.

This is where Missy enters our the story. Consider covering hundreds of pages of information. With 23 trainees, if you have two or three Missys, it’s easy enough to stifle questions until the end of a chapter of training. With 120, imagine a dozen Missys—all convulsing with arms in the air, refusing to let the proceedings move forward.

The vapid nature of these queries was astounding, centered on “what if’s” that were so obscure that a good half of the room was rolling its eyes in unison. For instance: “If a resident has already filled out their questionnaire and sealed the envelope and simply forgot to mail it in, take the envelope, thank them and you’re done.” Simple, right? Not for Missy. She actually asked, “But what if the sealed envelope is empty?” Jim Morrison sang, “People are strange.” Let me tell you: People are also stupid.

Example two: “Our mission is not to judge any response. If a black man tells you he's an Asian woman, you mark ‘Female,’ ‘Asian.’ However they identify themselves is what you mark on the questionnaire.” A trainee with one front tooth found it necessary to ask, “But what if he’s transgendered?” Instructor B stared her down, paused and said, “Did you listen to anything I said? If he identifies as she, he’s a she.” My inner voice cheered.

Two weeks into NRFU, the operation is one of typically controlled chaos. Thanks to persistent computer glitches on the federal end, assignments are flowing out at a confounding trickle... At least one department head was fired for shredding one of her staffers hire packets (did Missy finally ask one too many damn questions?)... And many of the new hires in supervisory positions have no earthly idea what they’re doing—symptomatic of the Census Bureau’s farcical hiring practices: Many of my most-skilled Enumerators slipped into a black hole following GQ, and were not rehired for NRFU, supplanted by new staff with no experience. Unfortunately, this is the dark side of the federal government and not atypical.

I am fortunate to have supervisor O looking out for me, literally keeping me in the Census loop. Every Wednesday when $$$ appears in my checking account, I feel blessed that I have been employed for the past four months, while I continue to collect enough new life experiences to write a book. Or at least one hell of a blog post.