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Census workers quitting

June 12, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

Hagerstown's Census 2000 office, plagued from the start by an insufficient amount of help, is experiencing high turnover and low morale, prompting some to worry about the accuracy of the count.

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Turnover isn't limited to the hundreds of census takers, known as enumerators, who are visiting households that didn't send in census forms.

The four people who opened the office in the Westshire Professional Center in November are gone, along with other crew leaders and supervisors.

At least six upper-level workers have either quit or been fired in the last month.

Washington County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said he is troubled about the turnover and its effect on the census count.

"This is like a mass exodus of upper-echelon people. Where there's smoke there's fire. There has to be a reason," Swartz said.

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An accurate census count is crucial if Washington County is to get its fair share of federal and state funding.

In 1990, about 1,800 residents were uncounted in Washington County, costing the county about $14 million in federal funds over the past 10 years.

The Hagerstown census office is responsible for counting people in Washington, Frederick, Carroll, Allegany and Garrett counties.

Officials in the U.S. Census Bureau's Philadelphia regional office, which oversees Hagerstown, downplayed the problems in the local office, noting that many of the complaints are from disgruntled ex-workers.

"People are always going to have problems with management styles," said Andrea V. King, spokeswoman for the regional office.

King did not have specific information about the progress of the Hagerstown office.

"All our offices are in line. We don't have any real stragglers," she said.

Nationally, the decennial count - taken every 10 years - is 97 percent complete. The regional office was at 92.3 percent as of last Thursday and expects to finish its work by July 7, she said.

A half dozen former employees blamed the problems on government bureaucracy and the new director's management style.

Census workers didn't get their materials on time, and yet were reprimanded for not hitting deadlines, said Melvin Smith.

Smith, who said he had eight to 10 census takers working for him, said his supervisors didn't want to hear about problems with the process.

"Nobody listened to us. I told them, 'What is the purpose of the census if it's not done right,'" said Smith, 59, a retired District of Columbia police officer who lives in Smithsburg. "The people of the five counties are going to be short-changed."

Employees said they were poorly trained and were given no clear directions or rules.

Smith said only three of the 40 people he started working with in December were still there when he was fired three weeks ago.

Employees said they quit or were fired because they didn't get along with the new manager, Asant Scott.

"If you don't agree with her, she gets rid of you," Smith said.

But Scott said she is simply focused on finding the best people to get the job done.

"If they can't finish it, I'm going to find someone who will," she said.

Turnover among the 800 to 1,000 temporary workers will not hurt the local count, she said.

"The work is coming in faster and faster. I think the Hagerstown counties are going to be pleased," she said.

Sidney Bloom of Hagerstown, who was fired as a crew leader June 1, was told he had a low production percentage, but said he believes Scott and other managers simply did not like him.

Bloom, a paralegal, said he also tried to confront his supervisors about problems and got no response.

"I stood up to them and I stood up for the people I worked with," he said.

Bloom and other census workers said they were committed to the job but were treated poorly in return.

King said she wasn't aware of any problems in the local office, but said the census operates under strict deadlines and can't waste time with those who can't do the job.

"You can't afford to carry someone who's not able to perform up to standards," she said.

From the beginning, getting enough census workers was a problem in Hagerstown and other areas with low unemployment.

Compounding the problem was the fact that the jobs are temporary and don't pay competitively, ex-workers said.

The regional office refused to increase the pay for office clerks from $7.50 an hour, even after wage surveys showed that area convenience store clerks make more, ex-employees said.

People were willing to work overtime, but it was difficult to get overtime pay approved, they said.

Census workers were brought in from other areas, making more money than the local workers plus getting paid mileage and a daily stipend, they said.

"This was demoralizing," Smith said.

King, however, said census workers from other areas are paid the Hagerstown rate. Hagerstown is not alone in receiving outside help as some regions of the country get finished more quickly, she said.

Norman Bassett, a spokesman for Washington County government, served on a committee that encouraged people to return their census forms, but hasn't been involved in the last two months.

He said he was sorry for the loss of local office manager Wayne Kline, who resigned after a back injury.

"He did everything he could possibly do to get the job done," Bassett said.

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