Don't Count On It

José Garcia says his boss at Census 2000 asked him to falsify documents. Then he got the pink slip.

On the morning of February 25, when Jacquelyn Mills-Smith summoned José Garcia to her office, Garcia thought he knew the reason. The pair worked for the U.S. Bureau of the Census on Miami Beach. Mills-Smith was the office manager. Garcia supervised a team of seven who had been hired to count difficult-to-find populations, such as the homeless, the hospitalized, and those who live on boats.

That Friday was an important deadline, and Garcia's staffers were behind in their work; they were supposed to have scheduled appointments to visit 80 percent of the approximately 170 sites in the district where such people could be found. Yet less than 50 percent of the dates had been set. Although Garcia accepts some responsibility for the tardiness, he says much of the problem stemmed from disorganization at the regional office in Atlanta.

Garcia expected to discuss a plan with Mills-Smith to request an extension and more manpower. But that's not what the office manager had in mind. Garcia contends Mills-Smith ordered him to indicate the visits had been scheduled, a lie. "I want you to fill out 30 advanced-visit forms," Garcia says Mills-Smith told him, referring to the paper that documented Garcia's team's work.

He refused, pointing out that she was asking him to commit a crime.

"Your job depends on it," was Mills-Smith's answer, according to Garcia.

Garcia nevertheless declined to follow the order and returned to his desk in stunned silence. Shortly afterward he left the office to visit the Hampton Court Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami-Dade. When Garcia returned that afternoon, another supervisor, George Gruber, fired him.

Garcia believes he was set up as a fall guy for the office's failures. He also alleges his supervisors wanted to get rid of him because of complaints he had filed about his treatment.

Despite several phone calls and a faxed list of questions pertaining to Garcia's claims, census officials declined comment. "We do not discuss personnel matters," says James Holmes, director of the Atlanta office, which oversees three states, including Florida.

Every ten years, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the government hires people like Garcia to count the nation's citizens. The results determine how as much as $168 billion per year in federal tax dollars is doled out for necessities such as roads, schools, and hospitals. The agency's numbers are hotly contested. In the 1990 census, as many as four million people were uncounted, including about 260,000 in Florida, according to the General Accounting Office. As a result the state was shorted about a quarter-billion dollars in federal funding during the 1990s. Of particular concern during the 1990 count were hard-to-locate groups like the homeless, who often depend on federal assistance.

This year it is expected $6.8 billion will be spent on the census, up substantially from the $2.6 billion shelled out in 1990. To find and record an estimated 275 million Americans, Congress earmarked $167 million to hire a half-million workers, most on a temporary basis. Forms will be mailed to 120 million households. Extensive efforts have been made to reach minorities and the homeless.

Despite all that money and work, Garcia describes a poorly organized endeavor that is rife with inefficiency. If true, his story should alarm politicians and social welfare advocates. He claims racial issues interfered with good management, basic information was not communicated to employees, and bureaucratic bumbling delayed the count. Garcia says his supervisors feared the media would discover the reality. (One of Garcia's colleagues, who declined to be identified, says workers in the Miami Beach office were told not to talk with New Times.)

The 48-year-old Garcia, a technical translator by trade, was born in Argentina. He grew up in Connecticut, but now lives in a modest home in a subdivision near the Miami-Dade/Broward County line. He says he has never before been fired from a job, including the 1980 census, on which he worked. He decided to apply for the Census 2000 job, which paid about $17 per hour, because he could continue translating. After passing a test that all census workers take, he joined the effort on November 22, 1999. He was hired on a temporary basis, which meant he did not receive life insurance or paid days off.

Toward the end of December, Garcia passed a manager's exam and was promoted to the position of supervisor in the special-places operation. His contract extended until September 2000, he says. In January he was again promoted, to manager in the recruitment department.

Garcia asserts that efforts to hire census workers have lagged, even though the agency has advertised heavily. Recruitment of Hispanics in the Miami Beach office also has fared poorly. From January 12 to January 21, he claims there was only one Spanish speaker among the twenty or so people in the recruitment department answering calls from the public. Of approximately thirty-eight employees in the entire office, only three were of Hispanic origin.

When Garcia complained to Mills-Smith that there should be more Spanish speakers, the office manager, who is black, told him not to worry; he had a good job. He was then transferred back to special operations. Garcia filed complaints over the demotion with both the Equal Employment Office of the census bureau and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "[Other] people won't complain because they are afraid of losing their jobs," Garcia claims.

In some cases officials in the regional office micromanaged, he adds. In others they provided little oversight. "Atlanta is completely lost," Garcia asserts. For example the Atlanta office was supposed to provide a complete list of the places Garcia's team was to visit in a timely fashion. Yet the list did not arrive until February 21, five days before he was fired. Regional administrators never even clarified the Miami Beach office's boundaries.

"To say that we were behind is to say Alaska is cold in the wintertime," he cracks.

Shortly after his firing, Garcia protested to the regional manager in Atlanta and was told nothing could be done. He says he also has contacted the Commerce Department's Office of the Inspector General. On March 5 he sent a letter detailing his case to Florida Sen. Connie Mack, stating: "It is quite clear that the reason I was terminated was because I would not take part in [a] plan to commit fraud. I am not going to be quiet about this."

jacob.bernstein@miaminewtimes.com

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