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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Census Bureau Creates A Lot Of Free Time For Me!

By now (and from the title of this post), you can guess that the census bureau has not really lived up to its end of the schedule they provided to the office workers. I got a call yesterday afternoon also asking me to stay away since they have absolutely no work for anyone to do. And later in the evening, I got an email telling all the office workers that today's shifts have been canceled also.

The problem, it turns out, is that the computer systems are not being very cooperative right at the moment. I got a few more details about the vacant/delete check (VDC) process from my supervisor yesterday. I was not entirely correct when I said here that the VDC process does not involve anything other than gussying up the old non-response follow-up (NRFU) binders and resending them out.

It turns out that the binders need new cover sheets. They also get enumerator questionnaires (EQ's). These are not EQ's for all the non-respondents like in the case of NRFU. This is a smaller subset of EQ's, specifically for the housing units that are to be verified as vacants or deletes. The problem is not the actual production of cover sheets or EQ's, of which we have plenty. The problem is that each of them requires a label that needs to be printed out of the computer. The label contains all kinds of information, including a bar-code that needs to be scanned into the computer for check-out and check-in of the binders.

As usual, the infamous back-end systems of the census bureau are not up to speed, and don't have these labels ready to print out. So, people have been coming in to work and finding that they have nothing to do but sit around. This happened on Monday morning and Tuesday morning. The afternoon shifts of both days were then canceled. Looks like the supervisor caught on to the pattern quickly enough, so he proactively canceled both the morning and afternoon shifts for today so that the morning shift does not come in and sit around doing nothing! I was not scheduled to work today, so this does not affect me, but I am scheduled to work tomorrow, so I will have to wait and see if the balky computers start cooperating before then.

One of the good things about this delay is that my supervisor thinks work might extend out beyond my return from vacation. So, there might still be work at that time that needs more office workers to stick around. So, they may not let me go on July 1st as originally planned. Essentially, once the computers start working again, we need to print out the labels, stick them on EQ's and the cover sheets, do whatever else is necessary to get the binders ready to go out into the field, and then send them out. Once the enumerators get these binders they go to work again, canvassing these addresses and verifying their status. The EQ's then start coming in again, and require office review by clerks like me before they are entered into the computer and sent off to EQ heaven or wherever else they go when their life ends!

The enumerators for this phase are mostly NRFU enumerators. Based on quality assessments by the field office supervisors (FOS's), a subset of crew leaders who worked on the main NRFU assignment were retained for VDC (the VDC will not be broken into as many crew leader districts (CLD's) as the original NRFU was). And quality assessments by crew leaders and field office supervisors led to a subset of NRFU enumerators being retained as enumerators for VDC. Hopefully, the quality of EQ's this elite subset returns will be much better than the sometimes atrocious stuff turned in by the general population of enumerators during the NRFU process.

The other good thing that has come out of this delay is that what I feared would be an insane week has so far turned out to be quite sane. In fact, it has been quite pleasant because of changes I made to my work schedule in anticipation of the census work. Normally I come in to work around 9 AM and leave by about 5 to 5:30 PM. Because I was originally scheduled for the census work starting at 4:30 PM (which means I have to leave my regular work at 4 PM), I came in to work at 7:30 AM on both Monday and Tuesday. Then the afternoon phone calls came from the census office asking me not to show up. So, I would leave my regular work at 4 PM and get home by 4:30 PM.

My wife and kids have been pleasantly surprised by my early arrival from work. I leave for work well before they are up (I have to leave the house by 7 AM to get to work by 7:30), so I don't miss any interaction with them in the morning. Instead, because of my early return from work, I get a lot of interaction with them in the evening. Essentially, this shift in my schedule has increased the amount of time I spend with my family by at least an hour or two a day! In fact, I like that so much that I decided to stick to that schedule for today even though I don't have any census work scheduled for today. I came in at 7:30 AM instead of my usual 9 AM, and plan to leave by 4 or 4:30 PM rather than waste my evening time at work.

The extra time at home has enabled me to do various things that I would usually scrambling to find time for. I was able to take a long walk with my daughter one evening. She is growing up and will probably start taking walks with her own set of friends soon enough. She will probably not be too keen on taking a walk around the neighborhood in my company at that point. So, I have to do it now while she is still a pre-teen!

Yesterday evening, I spent a solid three hours working on the jigsaw puzzle with my other daughter. She had been struggling with it for some time, and had not been too successful in adding pieces to it in the past week or so after my last update. Yesterday, I worked with her to add a lot more pieces to the puzzle, so that it is now about 30% complete. I got a chance to explain to her my technique for finding puzzle pieces based on the unique shapes of the connectors that can be deduced by the gaps in the puzzle right next to other assembled pieces.

She was getting a little disheartened about the pace of progress on the puzzle, so this burst of puzzle-solving lifted her spirits up quite a bit. She had been picking up unassembled pieces and trying them out at random next to finished parts of the puzzle, and sometimes she would find a place for the piece, but in the majority of instances, she would not. It was slow and painful, and I can fully empathize with her feeling of hopelessnes and despair at ever completing the puzzle that way.

The accompanying picture shows the current state of the puzzle. It will probably not be completed before my vacation, but at least it is showing progress. As more puzzle pieces are fit into their correct slots, the puzzle progressively becomes easier to solve too. Hopefully, the tips I have provided my daughter will have an effect on her ability to tackle this independently too, so I am guessing the progress will be a little faster going forward!

At work also, my early start has given me some time to get work done without the distractions of others wanting bits and pieces of my time. Being the end of the second quarter, it is time for mid-year reviews where I work. This has meant gathering my accomplishments and entering them into performance evaluation documents. I find out that I am able to be at least 25 to 50% more productive at writing documents and notes when I am not being distracted by others at work. So, I was able to get the performance evaluation documents squared away in much less time than I thought they would take.

My research into my vacation is proceeding apace also. I found and saved several web pages dealing with sight-seeing and shopping in Peru. I also located maps, distance charts, train and air schedules, etc., that I can use to keep track of how much time I will have on my own so that I can budget it properly. Everything looks great now, with only the vacation itself left to enjoy. Maybe I will use this time to learn some Spanish so that I can impress the locals!

Overall, I have to thank the census bureau for making this week as good as it has been. Because of getting out of bed early to accommodate them rather than tossing and turning for an extra hour or two, I have been able to get a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. I have had more time to complete my regular work assignments, more time to do research, and more time to spend at home doing stuff with my whole family. In fact, may be I should pretend to have census work every day, so that I can come in early, and leave early rather than working the normal 9 to 5 routine! If I can only get rid of all these late evening meetings off my calendar, that might actually work, and I might actually get to enjoy it too!!

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