Monday, February 27, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Rules

I am a rules-oriented person. I don't exit through the entrance, or turn on red where the sign says I can't…all that. And not matter how ill-founded the rule, I feel obliged to honor it and oddly guilty if I don't. It took only one Census to break me.

As you probably know, Congress is constitutionally mandated to conduct a great count of all Americans once every ten years, and to keep things simple our good representatives have decided the count will be taken during years ending in "0." Since Wolf Block had folded at the end of 2009, come 2010 I was ready for temporary work and the Census seemed as good an opportunity as any. You have to take a test to qualify, though, so I took mine on a wet morning in February, at this dodgy-looking storefront on Washington Avenue. It was pretty simple stuff, I thought, but the proctor was so enthused by my perfect score that I felt guilty for not being equally excited. Six weeks later I received a job offer, and four days after that I became an office clerk employee of the Census.

My first task, along with a dozen or so other new employees, was to fill out a raft of paperwork, certifying that I was a citizen or else legally authorized to work in the United States, and that I hadn't been convicted of any felonies. At that point, one of my new coworkers piped up to ask if indictments counted as felony convictions. I reflected, "If you have to ask, then, yes, they do", and from her look, the gal in charge was thinking the same thing. The next step was to take an oath, swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I perked up; perhaps the job of office clerk involved more beat-downs and curb-stomping than I'd expected. (For the record, during my brief tenure as a Census employee, I was not required to thwart a single enemy.)

Then, we were told The Rules, and there was an abundance of them. No coming in early or staying late without explicit permission from a supervisor. No skipping lunch. No skipping morning or afternoon breaks. No taking a morning break less than 90 minutes after your start time, or less than one hour before your lunch break. No combining your morning or afternoon breaks with your lunch break. No fractions on your time sheet. Holy cow.

My primary task as a Census office clerk was conducting phone interviews to hire other temporary employees, primarily enumerators (the folks who go door to door) and the people who supervise them. Those folks earned way more than office clerks, and I couldn't help but wish I'd landed one of those jobs. Anyway, there was no real judgment involved in this work; I simply asked a bunch of yes-or-no questions from a script, recorded the responses, and if the respondent gave a certain number of affirmative answers I offered the job. It wasn't bad work, really; I like chatting with people, and once I completed reading the script, I had the opportunity to do so. I remember speaking with one veteran (vets were given preference for hiring, and deservedly so) who seemed lonely and really delighted not only to get the job but to speak to someone. Hearing "Gilligan's Island" playing in the background, I obliged him but asking him which episode he was watching, and commiserating over just how foolish it was for the castaways to repeatedly entrust the title character with that week's escape plan. After I hung up, I was told another rule: no socializing with the interviewees. Argh.

The Census Bureau is under the aegis of the Department of Commerce, and there are folks who have worked there Since Time Began and have little idea how the world has changed. I was assigned to one such staffer who set me to collating forms and explained to me in great detail – and utterly without sarcasm – how I might fasten them together using a device that inserted a thin metal clip right through the paper. I looked at her for a long moment. "So…you're asking me to use a stapler?" She nodded, proud that I'd caught on so quickly. Mother of all creatures great and small...

I didn't last very long at the Census, but before I left I took great pleasure in taking my morning break a mere 40 minutes before lunch, putting a fraction on my time sheet, and asking one of the interviewees her favorite brand of cereal. And I didn't feel one ounce of guilt. Who says government programs don't work?


Blogger greengreyeyes said...


8:50 PM  

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