Numbering the Folks

Recounting my brief term as a federal employee. 

On my way to work this morning, I saw an advertisement for this year’s census; they’re up-staffing for the decennial production.  It immediately called to mind one of my very first jobs, twenty years ago this spring, working on the 2000 census.  

I was in high school, and I saw an ad, not that dissimilar to the one I saw today.  I think they even had a website back then, too. The pay was amazing- I lived in Kentucky, so our wages were probably much lower than those of people in the bigger states.  These were federal wages: I would be making nearly twice my pay at whichever fast food establishment employed me at the time. 

I filled out an application, sent it in, and got an interview.  When they confirmed that I was a reasonably personable kid they hired me.  It was part-time, after school and on weekends. I started in late spring. 

My job was a “non response follow-up representative,” or some such nonsense.  What I did was: you know those forms you get in the mail, the really official ones that come every ten years?  If you don’t, wait a few months. Anyway, you were supposed to fill it out and send it in, and if you didn’t, someone like me knocked on your door and filled it out for you, by asking about a dozen questions.  

That was for most cases: one in every however-many households got a longer form.  They did this for surveying purposes. A few of my follow-ups were on those forms, and they could take awhile, like fifteen or twenty minutes.  

I went through training.  They very slowly explained to literate adults how to fill out a painfully simple form.  I was, at least technically, one of those adults. They told us that if we encountered resistance, we should very calmly and patiently explain that responding to the census is federal law, and they had to comply.  

Surely eager to show myself an “a” student among my fellow federal wage-earners, I asked what we should do if they threaten to call the police.  The trainer, who was also my supervisor, said that we should tell them to go ahead, and that the police will tell them they have to answer the census questions. 

I was assigned a route not too far from my high school, off Richmond Road in Lexington.  One of my follow-up visits was to the school’s drama teacher, who had recently directed me in a musical.  We laughed at each other as he filled out his form. The job was pleasant enough; most people were cooperative, if a bit wary.  Nearly everyone was polite, even if they were inclined to refuse.  

After about three weeks on the job, I had a short form follow-up at a little suburban house in the neighborhood.  The woman who answered the door was simply not having it. I politely insisted, and she started airing conspiracy theories about the government.  I told her I didn’t know about any of that- I was a political science nut and knew it was garbage, but wasn’t going down that road with her- but that my job was to get her to answer these dozen questions, and then I would be on my way.  

She threatened to call the police, except saying it that way makes it sound angry.  She wasn’t angry. She informed me, quite calmly, that if I didn’t leave her doorstep, she would have no choice but to call the police.  

I told her, with equal calm and resignation, that I would wait on the porch until they arrived, and that they would tell her to answer my questions.  

She tested the theory.  

I learned a few very interesting things that afternoon, and in the days and weeks that followed.  I learned that people do not, in fact, have to answer census questions. They can answer or ignore you as they please.  I also learned that police officers, as a rule, do not appreciate having the law or their jobs explained to them by eighteen year old political science nuts, particularly if said eighteen year old political science nut happens to be wrong.  

Another lesson: don’t trust everything you learn in training.  Managers are fallible too, and mine had trained me wrong.  

The final lesson, and it was a doozy: being a federal wage earner is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  

I was fired that day, kind of.  So was my boss. It happened in dramatic fashion.  I waited around with the policeman and the homeowner, and then my boss showed up in her car.  I had given the officer her number. We had scarcely begun apprising her of the situation when another car pulled up, and a stranger got out: it was my supervisor’s supervisor.  

After all the facts came to light, it was resolved that I was to go home, and not report to work again until they told me to.  Same for my boss, who to her great credit, fessed up to having trained me to let them call the police. The homeowner was free to go back to her life unmolested by the US Census.  

While I was at first dejected- it was one of my first jobs and I had just lost it for following directions- things quickly turned around.  The next week, I got my paycheck. My full paycheck. And the one after that. And then the next. The federal government, perhaps since they had not actually fired me, but just told me to go home, continued to pay me for a further five months, after only three weeks of actual work. 

In the twenty ensuing years, I have never had an employer pay me not to come to work, not counting vacation or sick days.  It’s a great gig. If you’re looking for an opportunity and see one of those little advertisements, I’d highly recommend it.  If I were looking for work, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Except I’m probably on a list somewhere, exiled from the bureaucratic corps because of Lisa’s shitty job training.  


Published in: on January 23, 2020 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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