Even as vast numbers of central Connecticut residents are out looking for jobs, the Hartford office of the U.S. Census Bureau is struggling to fill between 1,000 and 1,500 temporary positions paying $15 to $22.75 an hour.
More than 4,200 have applied for the jobs, but the census office needs to recruit far more to apply by April 27 nearly 10,000 people. The reason: Once hired, the great majority will drop out or never show up for the jobs, most of which require the workers to walk door to door on nights and weekends tracking down residents who didn't fill out their census forms.
And 43 percent of applicants won't even make the list of people eligible to be hired they'll either flunk the written test, fail the criminal check or neglect to respond to background questions.
"It's a major challenge," said Russel Hicks, manager of the Hartford census office. "For every slot we need five or six people minimum."
In all, Hicks said, his office needs 5,683 successful applicants by the late April deadline. He declined to say how many he has on the list so far.
At stake in the census count are hundreds of billions of federal dollars doled out based on population, and political clout the state could lose another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which happened after the 2000 Census. Other metro areas in Connecticut and the United States are having a similar problem recruiting potential canvassers, especially in "hard-to-count" neighborhoods, which are common in larger cities.
"Hard-to-count areas are hard-to-recruit areas," said David Noone, manager of the census office for Waterbury, whose territory also includes Meriden and Danbury.
Hard-to-count areas are typically urban neighborhoods whose populations include the poor, the less-educated or immigrants who fear the government, said Orlando Rodriguez, manager of the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
To increase the odds those residents are accounted for, the Census Bureau has made it a priority to hire local people to do the canvassing.
"Who's going to be a better enumerator than somebody who knows the neighborhoods? Who's more likely to get someone to answer a knock at the door, a stranger or someone you know?" Hicks said.
"We call it neighbors counting neighbors," Noone added.
But finding those qualified neighbors isn't easy. The agency will need at least 400 canvassers in the city of Hartford. And among those who apply, the Hartford office certifies just 57 percent. Waterbury, by comparison, has an eligibility rate closer to 75 percent and Bridgeport is at 72 percent.
"We're having similar issues," said Noone, "but not to the same severity as in Hartford."
A Few Good Canvassers
Tylonn Harold, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran, is gung ho about getting a job with the census. In the fall of 2008, Harold took the qualifying test and said he scored well. He didn't follow through with the application process because he found a job.
But two months ago, he called the Hartford office and asked to reapply. Harold, a Hartford resident, knows the city and its haunts, possessing the kind of comfort level and knowledge the agency is seeking.
Hartford has one of the highest ratios of hard-to-count census tracts in the nation. Sixty-one of the city's 87 tracts 70 percent carry that official designation.
On paper, the agency's mandate hire workers drawn from local neighborhoods appears sound, Rodriguez said, but it's logical that the city's problems would make federal government recruiting difficult. This year, to ensure security, the agency requires new hires to be fingerprinted.
"It's a Catch-22 kind of issue. You want privacy, you want respondents to feel safe, but there's a consequence to that you may not be able to get the applicant you want," Rodriguez said.
Hicks said, "Hartford is a very poor, high crime [area] and one out of six residents has a criminal record."
Statewide, 15 percent of Connecticut's population has been deemed hard-to-count. By comparison, Vermont's 3.4 percent is among the lowest percentage for states. The two highest, California and New Mexico, are above 30 percent.
Even among people with no criminal history that would bar them from federal employment, there's a glitch, commonly seen in Hartford. Any irregularity in the background check, which is done through the FBI's interstate database, such as an arrest, a duplicate name, a Social Security number that's off by one digit, or identity theft can trigger an inquiry letter from the Census Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The idea of the inquiry is to disqualify anyone with a felony conviction. It's easy for applicants who don't have a felony conviction to answer the inquiry, by showing court documents or being fingerprinted. Anyone who doesn't respond within 30 days is automatically disqualified.
But, said Hicks, "A significant number of people who receive the letter aren't replying to it, which could be why Hartford's ineligibility level is at 43 percent."
The problem is occurring in all of the hard-to-count areas, census officials said. Hicks suspects the letter is being mistaken for junk mail and is getting tossed out, reducing the applicant pool.
Worse, for the applicants who neglect to return the letter within 30 days, the failure could jeopardize their ability to get any federal work in the future because they will be on a database of ineligible people even if they have no felony record.
Harold, the Air Force veteran, said he did not receive an inquiry letter. He was convicted of felony assault after getting into a fistfight more than seven years ago in Virginia. He said he didn't know that having a felony would bar him from federal employment until the agency told him when he called late last year.
"They never brought it up to me initially," he said.
Tough Sales Pitch
Once hired as canvassers, the workers in Hartford and some surrounding towns will drop out in droves, census forecasts predict. Nationwide, the attrition rate for temporary census workers is predicted to average 72 percent, but in the Hartford area the expected attrition rate is higher, closer to 80 percent.
They are expecting these high dropout rates even as the unemployment rate, 8.9 percent in Connecticut in December, remains high into the spring and summer. The jobs will be part time or full time, lasting six to 10 weeks, or much longer for a few successful employees.
"It's very detailed work. Some people say they're overwhelmed or it's too cold out or it's just not what they want to do," Hicks said.
Others may balk at working nights and weekends or discover that the "sales" aspect of the census taker's job isn't to their liking, said Bill Gleason, manager of Bridgeport's census office.
"You have to go up and knock on people's doors and convince them to fill out these forms it's more of a sales job and you have to do it when people are home," Gleason said.
Some will drop out during the four paid days of training. Some will be fired for inaccuracies, or for failing to meet quotas.
To boost the applicant pool, Hicks said, his office was authorized to hire 14 recruiting assistants.
"We're visiting community centers, schools, churches and barbershops to let people know these jobs are available," Hicks said.
Harold said he would still like to work for the census. "Twenty dollars an hour is pretty good," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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