The View From Your Recession

A reader writes:

I'm a so-called stay-at-home mom who decided, pretty much on a lark, to apply for temporary Census 2010 work this spring. (The Census is going door to door verifying every address in the country in advance of the decennial census next year.) It's been an eye-opening, and depressing, experience.

I ended up supervising a crew of about 15 people. Some were terrific workers -- there are always a few, I guess! -- and I don't imagine they'll stay unemployed long, even in this difficult economy. But many, from my observation, were barely capable of holding on to even this temporary work. Of course, that didn't stop them from thinking the government owed it to them. When work started to wrap up earlier than anticipated, some were hostile, and others shifted into an undeclared slowdown in an attempt to eke out a few extra days.

In the meantime, at our city's central temporary Census office, competition was fierce to impress higher-ups from the regional office, in the hopes that permanent jobs might materialize. Supervisors above the crew level pushed relentlessly to increase production, upping quotas, urging us to fire people who couldn't keep up. We were told we could not work overtime, but without more hours we couldn't meet the goals that were set.

Most crew leaders I knew ended up working unpaid overtime, because they were bullied into it. We heard stories of people in the office being fired for doing the same. Given a goal they could not meet, but fearing they would be fired if they did not meet it, they accomplished their work, only billed for the maximum 40 their supervisors allowed, and subsequently were fired for lying on their timesheets.

Because people are so desperate for work, no one complained on the record. There was no one to complain to. I couldn't decide which annoyed me more: those who wanted to earn money for doing inferior work or those who were so desperate for permanent assignment that they abused their workers. And, of course, there was the ridiculously incompetent bureaucracy to navigate. Because so many temps were hired on the fly, efficiency was terrible. All the endless forms we had to fill out regularly got lost. No one ever knew what was going on. We got conflicting procedural instructions on a daily basis.

 My take-away: We may need immediate government stimulus, but we need to stop pretending the government can get good work done rapidly. Watching government money slosh around this bureaucratic microcosm has convinced me that "fast," "government" and "quality work" are completely incompatible. But hey, the extra cash is coming in handy!