How I Got Fired by the US Census

by Danielle Sobol
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uncle-sam_census.jpg2010 is a census year, in case you haven’t heard. As is constitutionally mandated, I’m sure that you all filled out your census form and mailed it back promptly upon receipt. Unfortunately, some of your colleagues, neighbors, and maybe even people that you call your friends might not have been so responsible. That’s where the enumerators come in – an army of 48,000 retirees, college students, and those ‘between jobs’ deployed to fight census apathy by knocking on doors and asking how many people you live with.

I enlisted for a few reasons. Yes, I currently fall into the ‘between jobs’ category, but my work experience ranges from NGO jobs in Israel and East Africa to running a canvassing office for Obama in southwest Virginia. So besides actually thinking that the census is important and wanting to be involved in such a massive federal undertaking, I am a pro at working with diverse populations and getting people to open their doors.

The application process begins with a 28-question test proving one’s knowledge of basic multiplication and alphabetizing skills. A passing grade is 10 out of 28, but I got a pretty 100%. After weeks of waiting, my crew leader, Debbie Friedman, called to offer me the census job and inform me that training began the next day. Not a problem, my dedication to the cause of tabulating the masses made it easy for me to cancel my plans and show up for hours of fingerprinting, document signing, and oath taking. Also, census training is paid at the census enumerator hourly rate of 17.00/hr. Anyway, the next three days were much more serious, consisting mostly of lectures detailing the process of filling out the census form and explanations of what constitutes a housing unit.

censusform.jpgTraining concluded with a training exam to prove that those hired to be census enumerators had not slept through the training that they were paid to be at. I got one question wrong, the highest grade in my training group. Shortly after the exam, Debbie Friedman pulled me aside and said (real, actual quote from Debbie Friedman): “I know that you have your whole THING going on, but you need to know that the government asks that enumerators dress business casual.” My response (real, direct quote): “Yes, that was made quite clear in training. I wore jeans today but I will be dressed business casual tomorrow for in-field training. I honestly did not realize that you wanted trainees to be dressed so nicely”. And I honestly didn’t. Some of the groups’ elder ladies were all dolled up, but most of the men were wearing jeans.

Danielle Sobol dressed business casual

So I showed up the next day in black pants, a black sweater and black flats. My hair was blown dry. I was even wearing eyeliner. Yeah, I looked great. Debbie Friedman, apparently, didn’t agree. She called me the next morning to let me know that she was no longer able to offer me a position with the US census. When I asked why, she said (real, direct quote): “The census bureau is very clear about the dress code, and I just don’t think that you are capable of dressing in a way that is appropriate for someone representing the US government”.

OK BACK UP. First, I aced the training exam. Second, I have more canvassing experience then anyone you know, and I even conducted a census in RURAL HAITI a few years ago. Third, I speak THREE languages besides English, and even though I’m pretty sure that my Swahili skills would not have proven useful, my Hebrew skills might have and God knows that in LA my Spanish skills always do. Fourth, the government just spent about 500 of your tax dollars to train me to knock on doors and write down numbers. Fifth, this is LA. One could argue that business casual means jeans, though I’m pretty sure that the fancy old lady silk moomoos that Debbie Friedman wears don’t count as business casual anywhere. censusequip.jpg

I’m crying foul. Even had the reason for my dismissal been a violation of dress code, that’s pretty easily fixed. It was clear to me that Debbie Friedman disliked me from the get go, and while I have some thoughts as to the reasons for that, what is important is that she let some sort of personal vendetta against smart, pretty, well dressed perfect job candidates get in the way of a constitutional mandate. Next time you see a census enumerator trolling around your neighborhood (you can recognize them by the logo bags, badges, and business casual dress), take note of what they are wearing. If its black pants, a black sweater, and black flats, think of me.


0 #2 laura grace 2010-05-23 08:49
Our census worker came to our door, rather we found her looking perplexed at the bottom of our very long driveway. she was wearing white jeans and a red t-shirt. We let her in. Because she too is a Brentwood Mom.
Ms. Friedman obviously doesn't get Cheviot Hills or neighborhoods or the eclectic and wonderful thing Los Angeles (and America) is.
0 #1 Harriet Foster 2010-05-17 06:18
Pants, sweater and flats sound like business casual to this California lady. I once worked in a place where I could have come wrapped in a napkin, but they needed and were interested in my ability as Ms. Friedman should have been.

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