WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have opened multiple inquiries into California census operations, including allegations that some workers felt so much pressure that they cut corners or got things wrong during the crucial population count.
The investigation isn't unique. Last month, investigators revealed that two census supervisors in Brooklyn had directed workers to falsify answers to household questionnaires. The New York case arose from whistle- blower complaints, much as the California investigations did.
Both cases underscore the potential for problems in trying to count 309 million U.S. residents.
"I think it is important to stress that events of this nature occur in every census in spite of our best efforts," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves told a House of Representatives panel last month.
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The California investigations aren't complete, but the whistle-blowers who filed the complaints charge that the problems boiled down to management's demands.
"The goals had everything to do with speed, and nothing to do with accuracy," said Craig Baltz, a former worker in one of the Census Bureau's two Fresno offices. "Instead of slowing down to ensure accurate data, we sped up."
Baltz charged that in some difficult-to-reach areas, "enumerators had two choices: Turn in accurate work and get written up or terminated, or falsify data and keep working."
Baltz worked for the census from October until July.
In one case, a former census worker claims to have tallied residents of a migrant farmworkers' camp in the San Joaquin Valley, but the camp was empty.
Another former California census worker, Dan Gibson, voiced fears that "the quality of the work suffered greatly" under relentless management pressure, though he said individual field staff members were "incredible" and "highly honorable."
Gibson supervised field operations in the Salinas census office until he was fired in March.
"These people were very loyal, very committed," Gibson said of the field staff, adding that accuracy became more difficult under regional management he described as "a reign of terror."
The Salinas and Fresno offices were overseen by the Los Angeles regional office, the focus of ex-workers' complaints.
The Commerce Department is reviewing the California allegations, along with charges of sex, race and age discrimination. At least nine former workers in California, including Gibson, filed complaints.
Census Bureau officials say they've done everything possible to ensure an accurate population count. Asked specifically about alleged problems in California, a spokesman referred to comments July 27 by Groves in which he stressed the agency's nationwide quality- control efforts, which include double-checking answers from a sampling of households.
Groves said suspicious errors that could mean falsification of data were made by "less than a thousand" of the 565,000 field interviewers nationwide.
Aricelo Barcelo, who oversaw the Fresno and Salinas offices from Los Angeles, said in a previous interview, "We never discriminated against anyone based on race, gender or language" and that "we always follow the rules."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0006.