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Census training stresses confidentiality and safety

Census Enumerator Mike Wagner
Census Enumerator Mike Wagner

By Joyce Kryszak


Buffalo, NY – Last weekend, United States census workers hit the streets to make sure every last person living in the United States is counted. There was a lot of training that went into getting the force of nearly 3,000 local census workers ready for the big mission before them. It turns out, a lot of their training is as top secret as the data they collect.

Click the audio player above to hear Joyce Kryszak's full story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.

The names found in the A-1 black binders given to each census workers are the tough cases. These are the people who either don't care if they are counted, resist being counted, or down right refuse to be counted.

But there is a highly trained team ready to go out their and get their information - and keep it top secret.

Early one morning, in a vacant parking lot behind a South Buffalo church, we meet up with Mike Wagner. He is one of the early NRFUs on the job. That's a non-response follow up enumerator for those of you not hip to the inside world of census taking.

Wagner agrees to meet with us in this clandestine location only after getting clearance from his crew leader and the LCO - that is the Local Census Office. The regional chief had to sign off on it too.

But Wagner could not take us to any actual houses or even to one of the streets where he is collecting data. And the chiefs make sure of it. His boss called during our interview to make sure we were in the parking lot.

A short while later Wagner's boss pulled into the parking lot to verify Wagner had not brought along his little black census bag. That bag contains the binder that contains the confidential names and the personal data Wagner is collecting.

But Wagner does not mind the surveillance. He knows fear of "big brother" is why many people don't easily volunteer their personal data. Wagner said that is why the Census bureau hires some people who look like him, a big, burly guy with a pony tail.

The red-bearded Irishman grew up in this South Buffalo neighborhood, so a lot of people already know him. He said knowing he's "one of them" helps make people feel more comfortable sharing personal information and trust that it will be kept confidential.

But it is also for Wagner's safety. Being in his familiar stomping grounds makes it easier for Wagner to spot a potentially dangerous situation.

That hasn't happened to him...yet, he said. But another census taker told us that his life was threatened when he was canvassing door-to-door in one east side neighborhood. He could not be identified or talk about it on tape.

Agreeing to keep everything under wraps is all part of the training and the oath taken by every census worker hired.

Crew leader and trainer Harold Cohen wasted no time laying down the census bureau law in this training class for newbies. WBFO was allowed to listen in for only a few minutes at the very beginning. This was the second day of a four-day training session before workers are sent into the field. Cohen said not everybody will make the cut.

That is pretty understandable given the strict rules and some of the hostile characters they have to deal with. There have been attacks on census workers in other parts of the country. Kate Donohue is working her second census. She said in rural Cattaraugus where she worked in 2000 people were the least of her troubles. people told her to watch out for bears.

Yes, she said bears...and dogs and hunters. Census workers are even taught what clothes they should wear to be more visible. Or, Donohue said, how to be less visible so people don't think you are casing their house and call the police.

But mostly, Donohue said people are cooperative once she explains how easy it is to fill out the questionnaire and why it is important. Donohue said it is a great job.

Donohue and the rest of the census team will have plenty of work. There are about 48 million non-response questionnaires still to be filled out across the country. But census workers only have until July 15 to complete their mission. That is when the door-to-door campaign will end.