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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poor Planning By The Local Census Office Disrupts My Schedule

It turns out I spoke too soon when I said that my census work is keeping me busy. Yesterday, we ran out of work to do, and my shift was cut short. All my co-workers who were doing the same work I was doing, had their shifts cut short too, and all of us were sent home.

First a little background on what happens in this stage of the non-response follow-up (NRFU) process. The whole staff of office clerks is divided into two groups. One group does what is known as office review. The other group does OCS work. I am not very familiar with OCS work since I have never been trained for it, and only work on office review. When I say co-workers, I mean other clerks like me who were trained for office review, and do just that.

So, let me explain what office review clerks do. Field office supervisors (FOS's) and crew leaders of the different crew leader districts (CLD's) collect completed enumerator questionnaires (EQ's) from enumerators and bring them into the local census office (LCO). They also bring back tons of paperwork (such as time-sheets, performance reviews, administrative forms of all sorts, etc.). All of this is received at the office by office review clerks and sorted into different piles. The EQ's go to different piles by CLD, the paperwork is routed to the appropriate office managers, etc.

We then count the EQ's and enter this into a file for record-keeping. Once all this is done, the EQ's are then picked up by the office review clerks for review. We go over them with a checklist, as I explained earlier, and pass the ones that meet all the criteria in the checklist. The ones that fail get sorted by CLD, bagged into envelopes and placed in outboxes for pickup by the crew leaders and field office supervisors. They are distributed back to the enumerators so that they can correct the errors and send them back in.

Most of the office review clerks who were trained with me have now got the review process down to the point where they can easily review an EQ every minute. If it fails, we have to write up an explanation of why it failed so that the enumerator knows how to correct it. This takes a little time, but as long as the majority of EQ's pass, an office review clerk can easily deal with 50 to 60 EQ's per hour. I am one of the faster clerks, and usually manage 75 to 100 EQ reviews per hour.

Once the EQ's have been reviewed, the ones that pass are bundled into sets of 25 and passed on to the OCS clerks. These clerks then enter information about the EQ's into the operations control system (OCS). Why the same clerk can not review the EQ, then enter it into the computer, and move on to the next EQ is a question only the census bureau can answer. For some reason, the clerks have been divided into two groups, and we can not do each others' jobs because we have not been trained for it.

But one of the reasons could be that the OCS is more often down than up. So, while the office review clerks keep adding 50 to 100 EQ's per hour to the check-in queue, the OCS clerks can only enter these EQ's into the computer when the OCS is up and running. Each of them can do 100 to 150 an hour when the system is up, but since the system has been down quite a bit recently, EQ's have been piling up in their area, having passed review, but not checked into the system yet. And sometimes they are restricted to using only some of the computers in the office rather than all of them because they are given limits as to how many can log on to OCS simultaneously. This seems to depend on the mood of OCS when it is brought up. If the limits are exceeded, it might refuse to play and will take its toys home, leaving everyone with a dead system!

In any case, the supervisors in charge of office review in our local census office anticipated a huge influx of EQ's starting the middle of May, and hired more than 20 new clerks to work through the expected backlog of work. Well, the expected influx has not materialized yet. We have had a steady trickle of EQ's into the office, but not a flood of them. In the meantime, all the new clerks were trained over the weekend, and ready to go.

Yesterday, 10 of these clerks worked during the morning shift from 6AM to 2:30PM. There were about 3,500 EQ's to review at the beginning of that shift, and they went through those before the end of their shift. The evening shift (which I am part of) is supposed to be from 2:15PM to 10:45PM. When we got there, there were practically no EQ's to work on. We hung around for some time, and the time was used to provide us feedback on our reviews and write-ups. At 4:30, they were expecting a courier to come in with a lot more EQ's, so that we could then get to work reviewing EQ's.

The courier brought in only about 400 EQ's at 4:30. Given that there were 10 clerks on the shift, we were out of EQ's by about 5:30 once again. Most people were then asked to take their breaks, and we hung around after that for some more time. There was supposed to be another courier delivery at 7:30PM. That delivery yielded us about 600 new EQ's, which once again was far less than what was expected. The problem was that the next delivery was not until the next morning, and there was a night shift of clerks and part of a day shift to worry about before that next delivery.

So, our supervisors decided to cut our shifts short and sent everyone in my shift home by 8:15PM. Today's day shift was once again scheduled with 10 office review clerks. And, it looks like they did not get enough EQ's to keep things going, so they have canceled my evening shift for today also. I don't know whether the day shift is going to be cut short also. I have been told to come in on Thursday for my next shift as planned, but I would not be surprised if they decided to cancel it at the last minute also.

To me, the situation smacks of unfairness. First, there is the bad planning on the part of the supervisors who hired the 25 extra clerks without really knowing what the volume of work will actually be. Given that it takes only about 4 hours to hire a new clerk (completion of all the paperwork, etc.), and another hour at most to train them to do office review, they could have waited to see if the existing staff was overwhelmed with work before going out and hiring new staff. There seems to be a perpetual queue of people waiting for calls from the census office, so there is no shortage of candidates to put through the hiring and training process either.

Even if they felt the need to hire a few people as emergency backup in case the influx of EQ's was too sudden and too heavy, there was no need to go overboard and hire 25 new clerks. Start with perhaps 5 clerks and ramp up as needed. But that approach would probably be considered too commonsensical for use by the government!

The second point is that when the supervisor prepares a schedule for the next week and hands me my hours, I make a commitment to the census bureau that I will be available to work those hours. I clear my daily schedule to make room for this work. I have to negotiate with my regular boss the hours I will be at my full-time job, so that I can get my regular job done while doing census work at the same time. I don't tell the census bureau, "thank you very much for this schedule. I will come in whenever I have the time and feel like it". I commit to showing up on time when my shift starts and staying there until my shift ends. And I disrupt my life doing so, by putting off other things in favor of sticking to this schedule.

I think it should be a two-way street, with the census bureau keeping up their end of the bargain by paying me for the hours they schedule me for, regardless of whether they have any work for me to do or not. Just as I can not say that I will come in whenever I feel like it, they should not have the ability to say they will give me work whenever they feel like it. When the schedule is prepared, it should be a commitment on both sides to stick to those hours, not just on my side.

What makes it even more unfair is the fact that the OCS clerks have never had their shifts cut short or removed at all. First of all, the supervisor on that side did not panic and hire a few dozen new clerks just because work was piling up from all the EQ's that passed office review but could not be entered into the system when the system was acting up. He knew that his existing staff would eventually catch up and finish the job in good time.

Moreover, even when the computers were down, the staff sat around in the office, twiddling their thumbs. They basically had nothing to do, so they sat around, and some of them read novels, while others were chatting and joking to while away the time. When they are restricted to using only two computers (as sometimes they were), but there are 6 clerks in the OCS area, they took turns working on the computer while the others sat around. Sometimes they teamed up just for the sake of having something to do even though the job actually requires only half a person to do! So one person would pick up the EQ from one side of the computer and pass it to the person in front of the computer, who would scan it in and then pass it on to a third person to put down on the other side of the computer!! But when the office review side runs out of work to do, we are unceremoniously booted out of the office and our hours cut short.

And it probably wouldn't feel so unfair if all of us had been trained on both OCS and office review so that we could rotate around. That way, if hours need to be curtailed, everyone would have their hours curtailed equally, instead of one group bearing the brunt of the cuts.

The whole thing is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I have not mentioned any of this to my supervisors, because they can use this as an excuse to brand me a trouble-maker and cut my hours further. As a source of pocket-money, this is not too bad a gig, so I want to milk it for all it is worth. But I will certainly give them a piece of my mind when it comes time to leaving for good. In the meantime, I guess it is an employer's market out there when it comes to work, so the census bureau can count on the tolerance of people to being jerked around to be quite high. But the people who do get jerked around are going to be feeling a lot less charitable 10 years from now if the economy is strong, and the census bureau could have trouble finding anybody to take these jobs.

Oh, but I forgot, the census is going to be all electronic and computerized 10 years from now, so these jobs won't even exist then. Yeah, right, and I will be the queen of England 10 years from now, too!


Anonymous said...

Yes, unfair, but as a temporary Census worker you really have no value to the Census other than being an available warm body who will do what you're asked, when you're asked, or they'll go to the next available person (and, as you know, there are plenty of them). I know this because I'm a Census enumerator and CLA, and have experienced much of the same type of treatment from the Census Bureau. Our job satisfaction means exactly nothing in the big picture. Your supervisor is acting on pressure from his supervisor, who is implementing operational plans from his supervisor, who is under pressure from above to exceed all the prior goals set by those above him. As a temporary Census worker we have two choices: do the assigned task when it is assigned without complaining or objecting in any way, or quit. It took me a while to realize that consideration of the concerns of temporary workers does not exist, because it has no bearing on completing the job. The bottom line is EQs completed, and whether that number is completed by 10 workers at full time or 30 workers at part time makes no difference at all.

Blogannath said...

I am not complaining about the lack of any amenities that contribute to job satisfaction at the census office. I am not even complaining about whether they give me 30 hours of work of 10 hours of work. My only complaint is about being scheduled for 30 hours and then being asked to come in only for 10 hours, basically throwing my planning for the week into a state of chaos.

The basic problem is a lack of institutional experience with the processes involved. There are no reliable time or workload estimates for any step in the census process, sometimes leading to severe understaffing and sometimes severe overstaffing. But my argument is that if you give me a schedule for a week, just as you expect me to stick to it, I expect you to stick to it. I don't care if you reduce my hours drastically the next week, but at least give me some notice so that I can have a life apart from my census work!

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