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Callers' information gives snapshot of U.S.

April 09, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

Inside the U.S. Census Bureau's Hagerstown call center, telephone interviewers were asking Americans questions such as whether they are employed and what items they've purchased recently.

At least that's what branch chief Kimberly Clark said was happening a floor above her office.

Because the federal government is concerned with confidentiality and assuring respondents their private information is kept private, Clark declined a reporter's request to spend a few minutes listening to the interviewers at work.

The call center in Hagerstown is one of three in the country. In October 2004, interviewers moved to the second floor of a modern office building at 1125 Opal Court, off Eastern Boulevard. Other employees started moving into first-floor offices last December.

The call center opened in 1985 in a renovated Coca-Cola warehouse at 319 E. Antietam St. The move to the new building increased the number of workstations for telephone interviewers from 60 to 77, Clark said.

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At a ribbon-cutting ceremony held for the center in mid-March, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes spoke.

The center has 195 employees - some are full time, but most work part time or intermittently.

Some statistical data is collected from "cold calls," meaning people are called at random. Others are follow-up calls made to people who received the American Community Survey, Clark said.

Information for the decennial U.S. Census also is collected, as is data for the Consumer Price Index.

For the Consumer Price Index, people are asked about what they have purchased, where they bought the items and how much they paid. Information is collected for small and large purchases, with a specific target set each month.

This month, for example, interviewers are asking about "basket items" such as bread, milk and cereal, Clark said.

Clark began working at the center as a telephone interviewer a few months after it opened in Hagerstown. She worked her way up to supervisor, then operations supervisor and, in October 2004, to branch chief.

A brief look inside the call center showed employees sitting in front of computers and wearing telephone headsets. Each work station had a yellow piece of paper tacked to the wall that was titled "Duress." Employees are to hold up and wave the paper should they be threatened.

Most employees work five-hour shifts, broken up by a break.

"Sometimes it's stressful, but other times it can be very pleasant because you can get people who are very cooperative," Clark said.

Since the interviewers are not trying to sell anything, those on the other end of the phone line tend to be receptive, Clark said.

She said the information that is collected is important.

"It allows the government to keep abreast of the needs of American people. It enables them to make better policymaking choices," she said. "By looking at our information, you can tell where the needs of the American people are. You can tell how many people are working or not working in a certain area, for example."

Grade 2 interviewers make $10.35 per hour, while Grade 3 interviewers make $11.29 per hour. An employee's grade is based on experience.

Those working a night shift receive a 10 percent differential.

Bilingual callers are sought, but receive no additional salary.

Along with Hagerstown, the nation's two other call centers are in Tucson, Ariz., and Jeffersonville, Ind.

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