Census Workers' Fingerprints Get Closer Look

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The head of the Census Bureau said Tuesday that the number of convicted criminals who were hired to check home addresses this summer is probably fewer than the 200 estimated by the Government Accountability Office.

Robert Groves said the bureau is trying to determine whether it is feasible to require a second security check on job candidates whose fingerprints cannot be read the first time they are run through the FBI database. The bureau is spending $100 million this year checking fingerprints, the first time it has done so for temporary workers.

Last week, the GAO said it estimated that more than 200 temporary employees with unreadable prints might have criminal records that should have disqualified them from being hired.

Groves said people whose prints are hard to decipher tend to be older workers whose ridges have worn down with age or manual workers whose jobs have made their prints less sharp. The average age of temporary census workers with unreadable prints was 63 for men and 55 for women.

"That goes in the direction of suggesting the count of 200 may be an overestimate," Groves said.

The GAO report was based on a Census Bureau internal evaluation of its fingerprinting program. More than 1 million people applied for temporary jobs. About 16 percent did not pass the initial screening of an FBI check on their names for a variety of reasons, including criminal backgrounds.

People who passed the name check were then asked to submit fingerprints. FBI fingerprint checks then eliminated 1 percent, or almost 1,800 people; of those, about 750 were fired because they had committed serious crimes such as rape, manslaughter and child abuse.

Of the remaining group of hires, one in five had unreadable prints. Based on its experience with the group that had readable fingerprints, the GAO estimated that 200 others who had unreadable prints might have criminal backgrounds. About 151,000 people were hired to do address canvassing, which involves knocking on doors to determine whether an address is correct. In some cases, the jobs lasted as little as a day or two.

The Census Bureau has since altered its training of employees who gather fingerprints, aiming to improve the quality of their work. Some tips are as simple as using hand lotion to better bring out the ridges.

The Census Bureau expects to hire about 700,000 temporary workers next year to do follow-up home visits to people who do not mail in their census form.

"Americans must be confident that, if they don't mail back their census forms next March and a census taker must come to their door to count them, we've taken every step to ensure their safety," Groves said.

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