Census seeks federal employees for temp work

amaxwell@govexec.com

When the Census Bureau set up shop in Chester, S.C. recently to prepare to conduct a dress rehearsal for the 2000 census, officials hoped to avoid the agency's historical problem of scrambling to hire temporary workers at the last minute.

So the bureau raised the pay for temp workers by 50 cents per hour, to $10.50 per hour. Temporary supervisors can make as much as $14 a hour for jobs that last six weeks.

Despite the incentives, however, when Census officials held an information session at the public library, only five people--three unemployed workers, a member of the volunteer fire department and a motel clerk--showed up.

Officials at the Commerce Department, the Census Bureau's parent agency, are concerned that in the current booming economy, they could face similar labor shortages across the country as the 2000 census approaches. They have come up with a novel plan to help deal with the potential problem: hire federal employees for the short-term assignments, in which most work is conducted in the evenings and on weekends.

Daley recently wrote to agency heads asking them to urge their employees to take temporary Census jobs. "The encouragement of federal workers by their employers to pursue a temporary, intermittent appointment with Census 2000 would greatly increase the success of our recruiting efforts," Daley wrote.

The Office of Personnel Management gave Daley the go-ahead for the plan under a federal regulation that allows federal employees to take concurrent jobs at other agencies if their agency heads approve.

The Census Bureau, however, will not hire federal employees who work in law enforcement or any employees of the Justice or Treasury departments due to their enforcement and regulatory responsibilities.

According to Census spokesperson Karen Coles, the bureau needs a total workforce of about 260,000 people during its peak operation in the spring of 2000. Given historically high attrition rates, the bureau will have to interview, screen, test and train more than 500,000 new employees.

Census 2000 dress rehearsal sites in Sacramento, Calif., Columbia, S.C. and Menominee County, Wis. are already trying to fill some of these positions. As of April 2, the Sacramento office had hired half of the workers needed, while the sites in Columbia and Menominee had hired one-third of their workers.

"Hiring has been pretty good," said Coles.

But the Census 2000 operation has been plagued by problems.

The bureau is currently without a top leader. Director Martha Farnsworth Riche resigned in January and has not been replaced. James F. Holmes, a 30-year veteran of the bureau, is serving as acting director.

The General Accounting Office recently reported that the dress rehearsal will raise "further concerns about the high risks of a failed census." In February 1997, GAO designated the 2000 census as being at high risk for wasted expenditures and unsatisfactory results.

At the same time a debate rages in Congress about whether the Census Bureau should be allowed to use sampling techniques in conducting the census.

Still, preparations continue. At each of the dress rehearsal sites, census questionnaires have been distributed to every household on the bureau's address list. On May 14 in South Carolina and on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, workers will try to reach all of the residents that have not yet turned in questionnaires.

In Sacramento, the agency will test its sampling plan, sending out workers until it contacts at least 90 percent of the households in each census tract. Using a pool of these households, the bureau will take a sample and use it to supply information for the missing 10 percent.

The agency plans to evaluate the results of each of the test sites and use that information to make adjustments before 2000.

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