FRESNO -- Federal investigators are probing allegations of discrimination and bad management at the Fresno offices of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Prompted by multiple employee complaints, Commerce Department investigators have reportedly been examining Fresno-area operations for the past several months. At the very least, the complaints reveal nagging local morale problems in the agency responsible for one of the federal government's most sensitive tasks.
"They did wrong," former Fresno-area Census Bureau worker James Braun said. "They did so many people wrong."
The investigations come as census takers wrap up the crucial population count that occurs once every 10 years. The census is required under the Constitution, with the results determining everything from federal aid to representation in Congress.
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The 59-year-old Braun filed several employment discrimination complaints after he was fired in June. He is one of several former Fresno-area Census Bureau workers who filed complaints with the agency's civil rights office and the Office of Inspector General.
"I know a lot of people who've been contacted by investigators," said former Fresno-area Census Bureau worker Robin Walker, who filed her own complaints.
Manager rejects claims
Araceli Barcelo, who has overseen the Fresno offices since September 2009, denies the allegations. In a telephone interview, she said the census has been managed professionally and according to agency policies.
"We never discriminated against anyone based on race, gender or language," Barcelo said. "We always follow the rules by the book."
On Capitol Hill, though, lawmakers have been alerted to the census complaints. Andrew House, spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, confirmed the ongoing Office of Inspector General investigation.
House said the congressman's office is not taking sides. But, he added: "We want to make sure our constituents are treated fairly."
The 58-year-old Walker brought her complaints to Nunes' office, as well as other California congressional offices. She says she was fired by the Census Bureau in January, not long after she filed an age, race and sex discrimination complaint. Like Braun, Walker asserts supervisors discriminated against her in part because of her age and her race.
Braun and Walker are white; their supervisors were Latino. The two former workers claim Latino employees were routinely favored for assignments over older white workers.
"The discrimination was blatant," Walker said.
For supervisors as well as field workers, the census is a complicated and stressful undertaking. Overall, the federal government has spent more than $14 billion and hired more than 600,000 workers to help collect the household information.
In January 2009, the Census Bureau opened its first Fresno office on North Blackstone Avenue and announced plans to hire more than 1,000 workers to cover the region. There are two Fresno offices, responsible for the southern San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada counties. The Fresno offices, which employ about 500 workers, are scheduled to close at the end of this month.
Foreign language speakers
The census work can be particularly challenging in regions such as the San Joaquin Valley, laced with poverty and language barriers. Barcelo said she sometimes needed workers who could speak Spanish, Hmong or other languages common among the region's refugees and immigrants.
Facing strict deadlines, census workers say they felt the constant lash from supervisors. Micromanagement, Braun said, went to extremes. An administrative clerk and security specialist hired in November 2008, Braun said he was ordered to ask permission before using the bathroom. People were fired for coming in a few minutes late or using a little too much overtime, he said.
In December, Walker filed an equal opportunity complaint. She says she was fired Jan. 15 after being accused of "insubordination" after a succession of conflicts with her supervisor. Shortly after her firing, she filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General.
Braun contacted investigators after he was terminated in the wake of what he called unfounded management complaints.
Office of Inspector General spokesman Randall Popelka said Tuesday that the office couldn't comment on or acknowledge any ongoing investigation.