By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; B03
Thousands of workers hired last year for temporary positions by the U.S. Census Bureau were trained and paid but never worked for the agency, while others who fulfilled assignments overbilled for travel expenses, according to an audit released Tuesday.
A quarterly report by the Commerce Department's inspector general noted that the Census Bureau spent less money than budgeted during the fourth quarter of 2009, but it warned of potential cost overruns as the agency prepares to hire more than 1 million temporary workers this spring -- the largest temporary civilian hiring in government history.
The Census Bureau hired roughly 140,000 temporary workers last spring to prepare for this year's national head count. More than 100,000 "address canvassers" were reimbursed a combined $83 million for driving more than 150 million miles as they verified residential addresses, the audit said. Federal mileage reimbursement rates were set at 58.5 cents per mile in August 2008 but dropped to 55 cents Jan. 1, 2009. Some of the agency's regional offices mistakenly reimbursed 3.9 million miles at the higher rate, costing about $136,000 in overpayments, auditors found.
The Census Bureau also trained workers who performed little or no work, the audit said. Roughly 10,200 of the temporary hires did no work but earned a combined $3.4 million for attending training. An additional 5,028 employees completed training and earned a combined $2.2 million, but worked for less than a day. Auditors concluded that some employees could have voluntarily quit, while others never worked because there wasn't work for them to do.
Address-canvassing operations resulted in higher-than-estimated costs because recruits showed up for training at a much higher rate than they did during the 2000 Census, the agency said in a statement.
"We believe this was due to the economic downturn and have adjusted our recruitment and retention projections," spokesman Stephen L. Buckner said. The agency has also reassessed its training, staffing and travel expenses ahead of this spring's hiring and is "confident we have better estimates and cost controls in place," Buckner said.
This year's national head count will be the most expensive in U.S. history, costing an estimated $14.7 billion. Roughly $7.4 billion will be spent in the fiscal year that ends in September, mostly on payroll and advertising budgets.
The audit comes as the Census Bureau faces criticism for its decision to spend $2.5 million for advertising time during this month's Super Bowl. The agency paid to air a 30-second spot during the game's third quarter and twice during the pregame show.
Critics complained that the ad did not directly convey the Census Bureau's plans to mail decennial census forms to homes next month. Some Senate Republicans also questioned the agency's decision to make the ad buy, even though Congress approved the advertising budget during the Bush administration. Agency officials have said that any publicity, good or bad, should help increase overall participation in the census. More participation would require fewer in-person follow-up interviews conducted by temporary workers, an expensive element of census operations.