Workin' For Big Brother

The U.S. Census Bureau's Innovative Employee Policies Offer A Beacon Of Hope For Large, Uncaring Corporations Bent On Maximizing Production.

THREE FORMER, high-ranking local U.S. Census Bureau employees each have independently told The Weekly grim tales featuring heavy-handed, bureaucratic idiocy and exploitative, uncaring policies, all allegedly swimming in a spicy broth of fear and intimidation.

"If I had to sum up my experience," one of the former workers said, "it would be that while the Census Bureau counts people, its own people don't count."

Taken together, the war stories of Tucsonans Dina Afek, Don Blascak and Neil Weiner offer a concise, if not downright inspiring how-to manual for predatory corporations bent on maximizing production by ruthlessly squeezing employees.

Afek was one of six field operation supervisors for the Greater Tucson Area; Blascak was assistant manager of field operations at the Census' urban office; Weiner, the highest-ranking of the trio, oversaw the Census' rural operations in southern Arizona.

Their former boss, William Bellamy, denies many of their allegations, although he refuses to discuss his management "style."

The following helpful Executive Guide is based on the ex-employees' collective experience:

1. Even in what we laughably call a time of "full employment," there are plenty of people willing to work if you dangle the elusive carrot of decent pay.

Census enumerators, the grunts who go door-to-door, are paid $10.50 an hour--certainly better than many low-level jobs in this generally low-wage town.

What they don't know when they're recruited, however, is that:

2. Doublespeak is a powerful tool for exploiting the workers.

While enumerators are told they can work nights and weekends, many of their production goals simply can't be met on a part-time schedule.

Enumerators, as well as the managers above them, are also warned that they're not to work more than 40 hours a week. Overtime, although available, is simply not authorized, except in very limited special circumstances.

Unfortunately, say Afek, Blascak and Weiner, accomplishing the Census' demanding goals often is not possible in a 40-hour timeframe.

"I felt like there were two opposing policies," Afek recalls. "On the one hand we were supposed to work no more than 40 hours; on the other hand everybody had to put in way more, and the job really demands way more."

Blascak recalls Afek raising this curious paradox at a manager's meeting:

"These people had just worked 70 and 80 hours for two weeks straight, with no overtime. And Dina said, 'What's up with this? You know, this isn't WWIII.' "

Of course, Afek was soon fired, ostensibly based on the convenient bureaucratic principle that:

3. Big Brother says: Numbers don't lie, now do they?

Once the enumerators' production numbers begin to falter--for whatever reason, it doesn't matter: a string of no-one-at-home stops, a vast territory to cover, car problems, daycare snafus--they're given a two-day warning and then fired, in some cases only a day later.

The same applies to upper-level managers such as Afek, but with a twist:

While her enumerators were individually highly productive, she was judged against an overall percentage covering the city as a whole. And since, due to errors by higher-ups, she was forced to begin a major census operation without a full staff (many of them were college students who didn't show up), her percentage of completed reports was lower than those of other districts.

"We had half the required number of crew members or below. And not only were we within range [on raw numbers], we were slightly better than any of the other districts," she says.

Afek was on shaky ground; but to her credit, Gomez- Shepherd finally understood her argument and ordered replacement crew members for Afek's district.

Unfortunately, not a lot of the replacements panned out, and her numbers were still low. Consequently, in the nonsensical world of the Census bureaucracy, higher-ups ordered her to fire two crew leaders and issue warnings to two others in her under-producing district.

"I explained the whole thing about the statistics to them, and told them I couldn't fire those people. They were doing a good job," Afek recalls. "But they insisted I had to fire them because there hadn't been an increase in productivity in the last 24 hours. I told them I needed to talk to these people first--because there could be any number of reasons for this. I needed to give them a chance to explain. But they said, 'No, you need to fire these people now.' "

Never mind that several areas in Afek's district were considered high-risk, thus requiring enumerators to work in teams, further decreasing their efficiency.

She refused to fire them, and was in turn forced to resign. Ironically, only one of the crew leaders in question was eventually fired; the other remained after Afek left. A third resigned a short time later, citing the bad work atmosphere.

As her replacement, officials were eyeing a crew leader who, Afek says, "had some of the best percentages overall because she only had 750 units to do, as opposed to 2,000 for the other crew leaders."

Which brings us to a related tip:

4. Put on a happy face!

After Afek was forced out, Gomez-Shepherd put out a cheery memo saying Afek will be attending law school in the fall, implying this was the reason for her departure.

Meanwhile, back to the dirty details:

5. It's cheaper just to fire people.

"The pressure was always on to get rid of people who had low productivity or high mileage," Weiner says. "With 1,500 people in the field during an operation (there were six major census operations in all), how are you going to check on individual enumerators to find out if they've fudged their mileage? I mean it was impossible. So mostly they (Census officials) just wanted to see people removed. And while they said, 'Yeah, you need to go check on it,' they also knew it was impossible to check. So there's that doublespeak again. And they were always asking, 'How many did you fire, how many did you fire?' And while I can't tell you that it was ever said definitely fire these people, the message was to fire them."

Weiner, who was higher up in the organization than Afek, says he simply refused to fire people if he couldn't check their production. "We did fire non-productive workers, of course, but we also let the high natural attrition solve it," he says. "And then we'd list the names of the people we supposedly got rid of. We managed to keep that up for quite a while. I wasn't about to enforce that stupid rule. It's ridiculous."

He was eventually let go for the same reason that tripped up Afek--he refused to fire people unfairly.

6. Training and inspiring the worker cadres (before you fire them) is an important management task.

"Almost all of our training came from verbatim reading," Weiner says of the Census. "And as far as I could tell, it was a monumental waste of money. We were flown to Las Vegas; we were put in hotels. The sessions lasted four days, and all they did was read to you out of a book for those four days. We went to many training sessions and they were exactly the same--in August, September, October, November and even into December."

Once in a while, he says, a bureaucrat would come to Tucson and read the official bureaucratic scripture to local workers. "But nobody ever really talked to us, they just read it. And we pretty much had to figure out what we were doing as we went along, because it was very difficult to figure it out from the scripture readings."

Also, during one particularly intensive operation, Blascak recalls, local managers were ordered to drop everything to attend an inspirational teleconference talk given by Sue Lavin, the regional Census mucky-muck in Denver.

"I argued that everybody was much too busy for such nonsense," Blascak says, "because we were trying to get the crews organized in the field. But they said, 'No, no, it's much more important to listen to Sue.' "

Weiner confirms that story, recalling that Lavin talked for roughly 15 minutes about her experiences in Alaska's Idiotrod dogsled race (she had discussed the same topic for 30 minutes at a previous session). As he recalls, she basically told the inspiring tale of how she was a passenger on one of the sleds during one leg of the race.

Yes, we can all learn a lot from exciting tales about human ballast.

Which brings us to our next-to-last rule for today:

7. If you can't properly train, pay or inspire people to do an impossible job and do it well, then for god's sake don't hesitate to use fear, intimidation and simple belittlement.

The head of the Census in Tucson and a number of other outlying areas is William E. "Bill" Bellamy, 71, USAF retired.

Weiner says Regional Director Lavin has referred to Bellamy as a "god" in the bureaucracy because "he gets things done." All three former workers attest to Bellamy's mastery of details and his superb organizational skill.

Among other things, Blascak recalls, Bellamy has told him directly that: he retired as a brigadier general in the Air Force; he served in the latter part of WWII as well as the Berlin Airlift; spent one hour as a POW in Korea before snapping his captor's neck and escaping; flew the F4 in Vietnam; flew the U2 spy plane; was asked to speak at this year's Air Force Academy graduation.

It's an intimidating record, to say the least. But perhaps Blascak, who was under extreme pressure before he quit the Census--on the same general grounds as Afek and Weiner, it turns out--misheard Bellamy.

A reporter talking to Bellamy referred to him as "General," and went uncorrected, until he asked Bellamy directly what his rank in the Air Force had been. Bellamy replied he was a colonel.

In addition, when describing his escape from captivity in Korea, Bellamy merely said it was accomplished when his armed captor "turned his head," perhaps not wishing to soil the public prints with a sensational tale of wartime violence.

And he told the reporter he was not asked to speak at the main Air Force Academy graduation ceremony--for which protocol officials there have no record of him as a speaker, by the way. Bellamy said he was invited to speak at a lesser, "auxiliary" ceremony, because his grandson was graduating from the Academy this year. He was forced to turn down the invitation for personal reasons.

Afek cites an atmosphere of "fear and intimidation" created by the national Census officials and amplified by Bellamy's no-holds-barred, my-way-or-the-highway interpretation of the rules. She says this combination results in an artificially induced sense of emergency and impending disaster.

"They use the tactics of fear and intimidation to manage people," she complains. "And that's just totally unnecessary. All the studies show this type of management style is completely outdated. It doesn't work--and it's morally wrong."

Weiner says of his former boss, "He's belittling and he uses intimidation. I'll give you an example. When he says something to you first thing in the morning, it's not, 'Hello, good morning.' It's, 'Did you read report 626C?' Some obscure report. So, of course the answer's no. Because there are 30 reports in the Census we have to check every morning. And then he says, 'How come you haven't? Aren't you on your job?' And that's the way a typical conversation would start, almost alwaysäAnd I know he claims he's a general."

Which brings us to:

8. When questioned, deny, dodge and deflect.

Bellamy categorically denies the Census Bureau has arranged things so that people must work more than 40 hours or risk dismissal. "In fact they're counseled to make sure they don't do that," he says.

He says percentages are readily adjusted to take various factors into consideration.

He denies that Census bureaucrats have pegged the number of people to be fired in any given operation at roughly 10 percent, as the former employees claim. "There is no percentage of people to be fired," Bellamy says. "That's an incorrect statement.

Finally, Bellamy refuses to discuss his methods of public administration. "I will not get into a discussion of my personal style or anything," he says. "If you have questions such as what we do in the Census and so forth, I'd be more than happy to give you an interview."

While the company line may be a mighty fine line, we'll let Afek have the last word, although both Weiner and Blascak echo her sentiments:

"The whole situation really could have been different," she says. "Up until the time that Bellamy and the people in Denver got involved in a big way--when the enumerating started--it was a really positive, wonderful place to work, and people willingly worked very hard. I still very much believe in the importance of the census, but when I think about the impact this work atmosphere has had on many of the people associated with it, I feel very sad."

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