January 31, 2011

Working for the U.S. Census

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When the Census started looking for workers in North Carolina, their recruiting efforts seemed to produce the same candidates you would get if you hung “Help Wanted” posters up at Golden Corrals across the state between the hours of 2 and 4 PM. Once the early-bird-special ended, the posters would come down—tucked away till the next day when those over 60 could get their hands on a $6.49 all-you-can-eat buffet.

The Census subsequently employed a majority of these hands, forming crews armed with hand-held computers and tote bags to send on something akin to a reconnaissance mission before the real population-counting work began. How I got hired among a sea of retirees looking to supplement their pensions, I have no idea. How I got promoted, I knew: I could work the hand-held computer.

Relieved I no longer had to make the twenty or so mile morning drive to the rural mountain county neighboring mine to have dogs unleashed upon my arrival, nor have to explain to skeptic residents that the coordinates I was map-spotting were not going to be used by my employer to bomb their home, I still felt my promotion to crew leader assistant was no cause for celebration.

My responsibility now was make sure those who worked as enumerators—like I myself had before—continued to do what the Federal Government hired them to do in the safest and most efficient way. I would schedule meetings over coffee to remind them to call the sheriff if someone pointed a shotgun at them; that there was a rhyme and a reason to map-spotting the houses in a clockwise fashion; and to get their assignments done faster. If I wasn’t in the coffee shop, I was out in the field doing observations and reviews of their work, signing off on the safe and efficient protocol they employed to get their pointless and often difficult job done.

Pointless because approximate locations of the homes had already been logged in previous years and houses don’t typically change location; difficult because it’s intimidating—and frustrating to say the least—to drive miles from one house to another only to find a dirt road that leads another mile up to a house with a rust-covered gate, a no trespassing sign riddled with bullet holes, and more often than not, barking dogs running toward you. Especially when you know others are working the neighborhoods near where you live in town, chatting it up with residents who bottle-feed kittens on Tibetan prayer flag-adorned porches.

A lung cancer survivor who still smoked—a fact I found strangely admirable—Phyllis [I’ve changed her name] was the catalyst for much of the head shaking and face rubbing I found myself doing after becoming crew leader assistant.

At some point right around my promotion, the order was relayed down to my boss that he could no longer have any contact with Phyllis after he tried to have her fired.

I heard she threatened to sue; then I heard that the administrators in the office just thought she might threaten to sue. End result: She still had a job. She also said she was scared of our crew leader, thus my promotion made her my responsibility, making me a bit sentimental over the long drive and barking dogs. I was never bitten and got paid around 50 cents a mile.

I didn’t know too much about her situation, but she hadn’t had a job in a while, and working for the Census was a good stepping-stone as she began to find her way past cancer and whatever else she was dealing with. I had been around her enough in our weeklong training a few weeks earlier to know Phyllis was a very sweet woman who could make anyone empathetic to her situation. Not to say she was knowingly manipulative, but lung cancer is a pretty strong trump card to play, no matter how many times a person pulls it from their sleeve.

But with that said, the rationale my boss employed to have her fired would be the same I would incorporate into my written observations and recommendations for her termination: Phyllis posed a threat to herself and others. We knew it was impossible to have her fired, but thought at the very least we could have her moved to a desk job so she wouldn’t crash her car into a bulldozer, which she eventually did.

Jacob Biba

Jacob grew up in a small town where Lucky Strikes were made and smoked. He’s currently learning how to play …

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