Stimulus Lost

Some of the economic benefits of the local Census operation fled north to Oregon



Late last month, U.S. Census enumerator Pamela Ward was driving down a seldom-used dirt road looking to get a head count at one of the many residences in Garberville that would prefer not to be bothered by government workers.

As she made her way in her black 4x4 Jeep Wrangler, "this guy and his kid came out of the bushes onto the road and stopped us. We didn't belong there, as far as he was concerned. He started telling me he was the neighborhood watch and a Vietnam Vet, and then he started telling me 'get the fuck out of here.'"

The father and son eventually turned to walk away. "That's when I saw the gun tucked into the waist of the dad's pants," Ward said.

Regardless of the dangers associated with the job, Ward says the Census was a godsend. The 48-year-old HSU senior and certified journeyman electrician could not find a summer job in Humboldt County and didn't know how she would pay her rent or buy food. Then the Census came along.

People such as Ward are thankful for the up to 40 hours a week and $11.50 an hour job the Census provided, but they are also upset -- upset about having work taken away for two weeks in July and given to a 60-person Census "blitz" crew shipped in from Oregon.

The Census operates in phases -- before a new phase can begin, the old one must be finished. The end of July was one of these deadlines, and Humboldt County was proving to be harder to count than the experts had estimated. So the Oregon team was called in to finish the job.

Rachelle Dilley, a crew leader for Eureka-based Census workers, says she had about 300 questionnaires taken away from her team. "People who used to get 10-14 questionnaires a week were lucky to get two or three," Dilley said.

To add insult to injury, Oregon workers received up to $15 an hour. They also received a daily allowance of $65, hotel stay for 10 days (up to $105-per-night allowance) and compensation for traveling expenses. They were also allowed to work overtime, something the local workers were not allowed to do.

Dilley maintains her crew could have done the same amount of work or even finished sooner had they been able to work extra hours -- not to mention, at a lower overall cost.

A small group of local Census workers wrote, called and visited the office of Rep. Mike Thompson in Eureka in an effort to get answers and ask for retroactive pay at the $15 an hour rate that their Oregon counterparts received. What they got instead was a statement.

"I'm very concerned by this inequity, and am working with Census officials to see what can be done," Thompson wrote. "I spoke with Dr. Robert Groves, Director of the Census, and he promised to work to see if there's anything he can do to fix the situation."

Thompson noted, further, that the Census Bureau contracted an independent organization known as the Westat Corporation to determine compensation rates for Census employees in different regions of the country, based on factors such as average employment compensation and local cost of living.

While these factors are used to calculate how much a Census worker will get paid, they do not apply to things such as compensation for mileage. No matter if a worker lives in Kansas or in California, everyone receives 50 cents a mile. "California has the highest gas prices in the country. How's that fair?" asks Ward, who says her Jeep will need a re-alignment now that she's finished the Census.

Cecilia Sorci, a Census spokesperson, doesn't understand why there's a problem. "Why is this a story?" she asked the Journal. "People were brought in to help move things along. If we're under budget and on time, it's good for the taxpayer."

Indeed, on Aug. 10, the U.S. Census announced it had saved taxpayers money by coming in $1.6 billion under budget. Out of the 34 counties in the Census Bureau's northwest region, Humboldt County finished its count 30th.

Norm Dutra, head of the Eureka Census office, says that everyone who wanted to work got to work. "If you chose not to work 40 hours a week, don't come complaining to me when others come in to do the work," he said. "We needed to get the job done and people weren't motivated. Who's hungry? Who wants to work? If you want to game the system I can't use you."

This week the Census office in Eureka will be closing its doors for good, which for many people, means once again being without a job. Local businesses across the nation got a direct boost from the Census -- gas stations, hotels, restaurants, stationary suppliers and the like, which provided Census workers with the tools of their temporary trade. More broadly, though, the money injected into the economy from the once-a-decade national headcount found its way into all sorts of local pockets.

Retirees Katherine Reisdorf and her husband Jon saw part-time Census work as a means to supplement their fixed income, but ended up working full-time for much of the duration. "We've saved up our (pay checks) and now we're able to address some issues we had in the kitchen."

With the unexpected additional hours, the Reisdorfs were able to pay to have their kitchen remodeled, which provided yet more jobs for Humboldt residents.

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