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Published August 04 2013

When ‘no’ means ‘I’ll be back later’

FARGO – They might park on your street and wait for you to arrive home. They might ask your neighbors about your daily routine. Or they might get your cellphone number and call you directly.

For U.S. Census Bureau interviewers, the biggest challenge isn’t convincing people to fill out surveys – it’s tracking them down so they can be asked to participate.

“The hardest part is just finding somebody,” said Tim Olson, a former census field representative who became the bureau’s first-ever respondent advocate in April.

A Fargo-based census worker who recently quit her position after filing formal complaints against the bureau with two different federal agencies, said field reps are facing undue pressure to complete surveys, even if it means harassing potential respondents and returning to homes where people were hostile or threatening.

“Now, ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no.’ ‘No’ means I’ll be back in half an hour knocking on your door,” said Sally Stutlien.

In letters to The Forum and U.S. Rep Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Stutlien wrote that a “shocking amount” of taxpayer dollars is spent doing “stakeouts” outside of homes and repeatedly calling and going back to households after residents declined to participate.

“It amounts to government-sanctioned stalking!” she wrote.

Olson, whose job is to look out for the interests of people taking census surveys and represent their concerns, said “there can be the perception of harassment” when it comes to things like asking neighbors for help.

“Well, that’s what you do when you want to find somebody. You don’t put yourself in a vacuum. You’re on the sidewalk and somebody goes by, and you might just ask that gentle, nimble question, ‘Do you know when this person here might be home that I could find them?’ ” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons we get good response rates, and that’s another reason we can put out that data that is pretty much trusted by a lot of people.”

Valuable information

The Census Bureau annually conducts more than 100 different household surveys, some by mail, some by phone and many of which are completed online, Olson said.

The decennial census and the continuous American Community Survey (ACS) are the only census surveys households are required by law to complete.

The bureau contacts about 3.5 million households per year to participate in the community survey. The survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed annually to program areas including law enforcement, health, education and transportation. Local communities also rely on the data when making decisions about roads, schools and other infrastructure, and businesses use it as well.

“Without the American Community Survey, we’d have a hard time quantifying and telling the story of what’s happening in North Dakota right now,” Olson said, referring especially to the changes occurring in the western half of the state.

Many unaware

Despite the importance of the community survey and other census surveys, Olson said the average person is unaware the census bureau conducts surveys on an ongoing basis, not just every 10 years.

“The biggest question is, ‘Why are you at my door?’ ” he said.

Katie Mertens, 24, said she had moved from Fargo back to her hometown of Devils Lake in 2011 when she received two community survey packets in the mail in late spring or early summer. Mertens said she had never heard of the mandatory survey, “so I just kind of threw it away like junk mail.”

After Mertens told the census worker she wasn’t interested in participating and asked the worker not to contact her, the worker “basically stalked me,” Mertens said.

Her neighbors told her that someone was asking questions about her daily routine and what kind of vehicle she drove, she said.

Finally, the census worker obtained Mertens’ private cell phone number – she’s not sure how – and told her she was legally obligated to complete the survey, which Mertens then did by phone, she said.

“I just think that her approach, going up to my neighbors, was inappropriate,” Mertens said.

Failure to fill out either survey can result in a fine of up to $5,000, though Olson said employees are trained not to threaten someone with a fine to gain compliance.

“We don’t emphasize that legal mandatory nature of the survey. We really – and we train our staff to do this – we rely upon their cooperation,” he said.

And North Dakota households are among the most cooperative in the nation when it comes to the community survey, with a response rate of 98.3 percent in 2011. The bureau saw 9,365 households in the state complete the survey that year, the most recent year for which statistics were available.

Olson, a Minnesota native, noted that his home state’s response rate was slightly higher, at 98.5 percent. Both states’ rates were above the national rate of 97.6 percent.

‘My last straw’

Among the many voluntary surveys conducted by the bureau, the Current Population Survey is one of the most staff-intensive, with field personnel visiting a household one specific week each month.

“They’re all trained in advance on how to handle households, how to find households, how to communicate the importance of that survey to the nation,” Olson said.

About 72,000 households are surveyed each month, with a slightly better-than-90 percent response rate, Olson said. Data from the survey is used to compile the nation’s monthly unemployment report.

“Every time that comes out, that moves markets, financial markets, and so it’s one of those surveys that is really, really important,” Olson said.

Stutlien said it’s also the survey that leads to the highest level of “harassment” for respondents.

Suzanne Brown of West Fargo said she was “harassed” by the bureau after she initially agreed to complete an employment survey lasting a year in 2011-2012.

“They would start calling me on Sunday the week their information was due and call every half hour or more, leaving messages every time and continue Monday, Tuesday, until they reached me,” she told The Forum via email.

“My last straw was when I was sick with bronchitis, sinus and double ear infection and had stayed home from work,” she said. “The census person showed up at my door Tuesday night because I hadn’t returned their calls yet.”

Shortly after completing the survey around May 2012, Brown said the bureau started calling her about participating in another survey. She ignored several messages before she finally answered the phone “and told them what I thought of their harassing phone calls and told them to put me on their do not call list and to never call me again.

“After all this I got a phone call from the manager, followed by a letter,” she said. “That is when I decided to put their phone numbers into my blocked numbers. That seemed to do the trick, and I haven’t heard from them since.”

Under pressure?

Olson said census workers are trained that if they have clearly communicated to the person the importance and value of the survey and the fact that it’s confidential, and still the answer is “no,” “they accept that and they move on.”

The bureau can flag problem households with a dangerous address designation, but Olson said those are “not very common anywhere.

“I mean, if we run into a rough situation … the employees are trained to get away from that and to not put themselves in harm’s way,” he said.

But Stutlien, who worked for the bureau for about seven years before quitting in May, suggested it’s not that simple because refusal cases – referred to within the bureau as Type A cases – count against an employee’s performance score and can negatively affect their pay and bonuses, as well as their supervisor’s.

She said field reps are forced to return to refusal households over and over to push them to reconsider, and even to insinuate the surveys aren’t voluntary.

In response to the claims about workers being pressured, Olson said it’s a tough job, “and, you know, they get quite a bit of training on how to do the job well.

“I wouldn’t say people are pressured. I would rather say people are, they’re motivated to do a good job,” he said. “And remember, these interviewers are local people. … In your case, they’re from the Fargo area. And they’re your neighbors.”

“When I’ve been in the field, the only pressure I’ve probably felt was from myself, that I wanted to be sure that I gave my best effort to communicate clearly and honestly with the respondent,” he added.

Complaints filed

Stutlien filed a complaint last November with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and also contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at that time.

She claimed that since the bureau’s regional office in Kansas City, Mo., had closed within the previous month and she and other field reps from Fargo had started answering to the Denver regional office, they were being forced to return to households that had declined to participate in random voluntary surveys and push them to reconsider.

“We are told to put ourselves in dangerous situations or lower our personal performance scores,” Stutlien wrote in her OSC complaint, a copy of which she provided to The Forum.

Olson said staff are trained that “if they get into a difficult situation, they are to get out of it.” He said the bureau couldn’t discuss Stutlien and her claims because of personnel privacy rules.

In January, Stutlien filed a formal complaint with OSHA, stating the bureau was requiring about a dozen field reps to return to homes after they were threatened with physical violence while trying to collect census data. She said she had made a similar complaint against the Kansas City office about a year earlier, and things quickly improved.

OSHA didn’t investigate but rather sent a letter to a supervisor at the Denver office asking him to investigate. The supervisor responded Feb. 1, stating the office had reviewed the complaint and found no field representatives were in any immediate danger or exposed to any potential workplace violence.

The Denver Regional Office covers 12 states, including Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. A request for comment from the regional supervisor was referred to the national Census Bureau office.

In a Feb. 12 letter, OSHA informed Stutlien of the regional office’s response and said it “feels the case can be closed on the grounds that the hazardous condition does not exist.”

Stutlien then complained to the Office of Special Counsel that she was facing whistleblower retaliation, including having her caseload virtually cut in half and being assigned Type A cases.

The Office of Special Counsel closed its inquiry on May 15, saying it could find no violation of federal employment law by the bureau and no connection between Stutlien’s OSHA complaint and changes to her duties. Stutlien said that with no one else to turn to, she quit on May 18.

Stutlien has since filed a claim with the state Department of Labor over 40 vacation hours for which she said she hasn’t been paid. She said the bureau is withholding the pay because it claims she hasn’t turned in a laptop battery charger she signed for in January 2010. Stutlien said she’s never seen nor used the item.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528