Report: Census Bureau backlogged on background checks

The U.S. Census Bureau has a backlog of cases involving workers who were flagged for problems in their background checks and inadequate oversight allowed a handful of people who previously had faced criminal charges to be hired for the 2020 census, according to a new report from the bureau’s watchdog agency.

Nearly 7.5% of the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers hired for the 2020 census did not have their background checks properly reviewed and decided, “resulting in persons with significant issues working for the Bureau and, in some instances, contacting households” during the door-knocking phase of the nation’s head count, said the report released this week from the Office of Inspector General.

In one case, a census taker who had faced an assault charge in 2016 knocked on doors for 38 days during the 2020 census, and someone who had been charged in 2011 with attempted first-degree burglary also worked as a census taker for 69 days. The report did not say where the census takers were located.

The report said investigative workers reviewing the cases for the Census Bureau may have missed red flags in documents “due to pressure to review a significantly higher number of cases.” Employment for the 2020 census peaked with 288,000 workers in August 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ineffective oversight “increases the risk of unsuitable individuals working in positions of public trust and, in some cases, contacting the the public on the Bureau’s behalf or accessing sensitive Bureau information such as household data,” the report said.

The Office of Inspector General also found backlogged reviews of background checks for longer-term employees.

At the end of November 2019, the bureau had a backlog of nearly 300 cases in which background checks had raised major concerns but the employees continued to work for the statistical agency without a final determination on whether they should be let go or stay, the report said.

Background checks of newly-hired Census Bureau employees are conducted by an outside agency at the Department of Defense, and continued employment is contingent on the new worker passing the screening. Once the background check is finished, the case is sent back to the Census Bureau, which must determine if the worker should continue to be employed.

As of last December, the bureau had a backlog of 5,484 cases in which no determination had been made, with some dating back to 2014, the report said.

Besides the once-a-decade census, the Census Bureau also regularly hires workers to conduct its other surveys.

In a written response, the Census Bureau said it already had begun making changes ahead of the release of the report and added that it has a rigorous process of screening potential employees before they are even hired, including fingerprinting that is vetted by the FBI.

The Census Bureau said it takes the background check process seriously, “recognizing the imperative to both protect our data and to preserve public trust.”


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