The U.S. Census Bureau launched a hiring blitz yesterday to fill hundreds of thousands of temporary jobs for its 2000 head count--including more than 19,000 in the Washington area--hoping that good pay, flexible hours and social purpose will overcome a tight labor market.

The once-a-decade enumeration, which is used to redraw political boundaries and allocate billions in federal funds, begins in two weeks in remote Alaskan villages and will peak in April, when most households are expected to return their forms.

Amid the lowest unemployment in three decades, the Census Bureau is offering higher pay than in past counts--with hourly wages of $8.25 to $18.50 nationally, and up to $15.75 in the District. It is running a $9.5 million help-wanted ad campaign, touting census work as "an important job that pays." The agency now has expanded power to hire legal noncitizens without first exhausting the hiring pool of citizens.

In some colonias--towns along the Texas-Mexico border where most people do not speak English--the Census Bureau will hire residents who speak only Spanish to help them out. Waivers also will let people collect pay from the Census Bureau without giving up their federal or military pensions, government jobs or housing assistance.

There are enormous obstacles to filling 860,000 openings--a labor force larger than ever before for what is called the nation's largest peacetime job. That is one factor driving the cost of the 2000 Census to a record $6.8 billion. Unemployment is lower than it has been for years, so the Census Bureau will hire mostly part-time workers. Because of turnover, applicants failing background checks and other reasons, the Census Bureau calculates it will interview six people to fill every job.

But census officials say they are on track so far. During a news conference at a downtown Census Bureau office equipped with a bank of computers and prefab cardboard desks, Director Kenneth Prewitt said the bureau has hired 150,000 people. The goal is 500,000, some of whom will fill more than one job. Nearly 6,000 hires are former welfare recipients, 2,000 more than the bureau's goal.

"We are where we want to be in terms of our overall target," Prewitt said. "We're feeling good about . . . our local recruitment strategy."

Most current census hiring is in rural regions, and officials in the Washington area's dozen local census offices say it is too early to tell whether they will meet their hiring goals. But George Grandy, deputy director of the Philadelphia region, which includes the District and Maryland, said "we're right on target" so far.

"Recruiting is good," said Inday Williams, manager of the office that covers the Northwest and Southwest quadrants of the District, "but I need more diversity."

Still, concerns remain. Prewitt said hiring is better in some areas than others; Kentucky and a Navajo reservation in Arizona are reported short of their goals. Census officials have promised to hire workers who match the demographics of their communities, but some minority advocacy groups do not think the agency is trying hard enough.

"They've been actively recruiting, but they've not been responding back," said Daniel Diaz, regional census director for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, reporting on a conference call with other fund officials from across the country. "We have individuals who have taken the exams and have never heard back from the bureau."

A General Accounting Office report last month cited "significant operational uncertainties" surrounding the 2000 count, including whether the Census will meet its goal of having 61 percent of American households mail back their forms. If not, the agency must hire more people to knock on missed doors.

If that happens, Prewitt said, the agency will ask Congress for more money to hire additional follow-up workers--as it was forced to do in the 1990 Census.

Congress is considering exemptions so Social Security and public assistance recipients can take census jobs without losing benefits, and the GAO urged Congress to let the bureau hire active-duty military personnel.

Most workers will be hired for four to six weeks in April to knock on doors of households that do not return their forms, but some are needed now for recruiting, dropping off forms in rural areas and other tasks.

Even if the bureau hires everyone it needs, Prewitt conceded that his agency faces huge challenges to achieve an accurate count, because a growing number of Americans do not want to be counted or bothered. Some people think Census forms are junk mail. Some do not believe the Census promise of confidentiality and fear deportation or eviction. There are many nontraditional households--unrelated roommates, for example--in which no one takes responsibility to fill out the form.

Census officials plan to supplement the door-to-door count with statistical sampling to adjust for missed people, who are disproportionately likely to be poor, minorities, immigrants and children. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that only figures from the actual count can be used to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives.

Census counts are used to redraw political boundaries to produce equal-sized districts, from Congress to local school boards. They also are the basis for allocating $185 billion a year in federal funds. They help determine where schools, fire stations, supermarkets and apartments are built.

Higher Pay for Census Counters

The Census Bureau has opened 12 temporary local offices in the Washington area, each of which will need to hire at least 1,000 part-time workers in the coming weeks for the 2000 Census. Because of the tight labor market, the Census Bureau is offering higher pay than in previous Census counts, and wage rates that vary by region.

*Sample pay rates in some jursidictions for enumerators hired to follow up by visiting households that do not return their forms

Jurisdiction Pay rate per hour*

D.C. $15.75

Maryland

Charles $12.75

Howard 12.00

Montgomery 14.00

Prince George's 14.00

Virginia

Alexandria $15.25

Arlington 15.25

Fairfax 15.25

Manassas 11.25

SOURCE: Census Bureau

The toll-free number for job applicants is 1-800-325-7733. More information is available on the Census Bureau Web site: www.census.gov.