Census mail avalanche nears

Essex center expects 44 million forms

March 19, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

If Census 2000 worker Ginnell Ray comes across a form filled out by reclusive author J. D. Salinger, she can't tell a soul. If she finds an address for, say, Michael Jordan or David Letterman, she could go to jail for up to five years if she leaks the information.

"You see a lot of things, meet a lot of people, just from reading the forms," said Ray, 34, who lives in East Baltimore and is one of 2,000 workers processing forms in the Census 2000 data center in Essex. "But you can't tell anyone about it."

Most people across the country got their census forms in the mail last week, and the majority are expected to send them back this week.

That means a mountain of paper to process for Ray and other workers at the Essex center. They will see every returned form from Maine to Florida and east of Michigan -- an estimated 44 million by the end of May.

They've received about 8 million forms in the warehouse, which is as big as three football fields and holds 52 miles of computer cable.

The converted United Parcel Service depot is one of four centers in the country where workers scan and key information into computers, then shred each form into slivers three-sixteenths of an inch thick. After that, the slivers are recycled.

Other centers are in Indiana, California and Arizona.

Everything that passes through them, even the seemingly mundane, is top secret.

About one in six households gets a long questionnaire, which asks questions such as how far people live from their jobs, where they shop and how much they pay for utilities each month.

Short forms ask easier questions like name, phone number and birth date.

"It may be tempting to make a copy or tell a friend about something you see, but there's a consequence," said Vicki Strittmater, community liaison for the Essex center. "It's up to five years in prison and $5,000."

Security is tight

No outsiders are allowed in the white and green warehouse on Kelso Drive. Employees must take an oath of secrecy and can't bring any cameras or recording equipment into the building, which sits on 8 acres. To get into work, they must swipe their picture identification badge to pass through a turnstile, walk through a metal detector and slide their belongings through an X-ray machine.

Guards and 24 cameras monitor the grounds day and night.

All to protect the precious personal information of celebrities, felons, illegal aliens and average Joes. If people believe the information is safe, they're more likely to provide it.

"Part of the reason some people don't respond to the census is because of mistrust of government," Strittmater said. "They think the information isn't confidential, but it is. Security is as tight as we can make it."

This week will be the busiest for the Essex warehouse -- an estimated 20 to 30 trucks carrying about 3 million envelopes will be arriving every 24 hours.

"It's kind of overwhelming to see all the forms coming in," said Ray, who supervises a team that keys in information. "There's just four centers that handle all that mail. It's amazing."

The Baltimore-area warehouse was chosen as a census center from about 100 cities around the country, said Hank Beebe, who works for contractor TRW, which helped select the sites.

The final decision was based on available workers and building space.

In Baltimore, TRW figured it could find workers like Billy Weber, 24, who took a temporary job keying in information so he could make payments on his black Grand Jeep Cherokee.

"It's a fun way to make extra cash. It's casual here," said Weber, wearing Tommy Hilfiger overalls over an orange T-shirt. "Nine of my friends work here. We all like it. It's cool to work for the census at the turning point of the millennium."

Workers make from $8 to $15 an hour. Most will be employed through October. Machines open the envelopes and scan the information into computers.

If the computer isn't certain about information it reads, it sends a signal to workers and they key in the data by hand.

Money, politics at stake

Census 2000 is the nation's largest peacetime mobilization. About 858,000 workers are employed to help track where every person in the United States is living April 1. If a household does not return the form, the Census Bureau sends a field worker to get the information.

Data collected by the Census Bureau every 10 years determine how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and how $180 billion in federal money will be distributed. This year, census data must be presented to the president by the last day of December.

"I tell people, `You have to be counted,' especially in Baltimore where they're closing rec centers and programs," said Ray, who has two children. "Baltimore City has suffered a lot. We have lost a lot of money in programs for our kids."

Plus, she said, working for the census is fun.

She likes it so much that she recruited her daughter, her sister and her cousin to work at the Essex center.

"I just couldn't wait to get involved. It's like we're making a mark on history," Ray said. "This is 2000, the millennium. You have to leave your mark somewhere. We're doing it here."

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