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Census workers tally - days without pay

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"The check is in the mail."

That's cold comfort for U.S. Census workers in the Uinta Basin, who say their bills are piling up because they have overdue paychecks.And they aren't the only census workers checking the mailbox each day. Apparently, many census workers throughout the 10-state Western Census Bureau region have yet to be paid for some past work. According to their contracts, the workers are supposed to be paid weekly.

A clerk at the Census Bureau's regional office in Lakewood, Colo., said last week that many workers, including an undetermined number in Utah, have either yet to be paid or were paid incorrect amounts. The clerk said the Census Bureau has "a problem regionwide."

"Explain that to my creditors," said one woman who is owed about $2,000 in back pay.

Census workers in the Uinta Basin, hired to go out in the field and obtain addresses in remote areas to prepare for the year 2000 official count of the nation's population, are complaining they've been working for about four weeks and haven't been paid for all that time. They're also haven't been reimbursed for car and telephone expenses.

The lack of a paycheck is particularly burdensome on single mothers. They not only have substantial gas bills piling up because of the amount of driving involved, but they also have day-care payments due.

"We all got in this job to be paid, not to put out money," said one woman.

Census workers wouldn't allow their names to be used, for fear of losing their jobs, but they did say they would like some answers. Crew leaders, who have been on the job longer than the rank and file workers, say many times their paychecks fall short of the days they have worked. Some say they're also concerned they will lose workers who are tired of being told "the check is in the mail."

"This is a taxpayer issue as well, they should expose this government bungling," one census worker said.

David Skeehan, a supervisor in the Lakewood Regional Office of the Census Bureau, chalks up the payroll delays to paperwork and the typical lag time between when a census worker begins and when their first check comes.

The first check for those in charge of obtaining addresses, who began training in late September, was supposed to be sent out Oct. 12, said Skeehan. But due to Columbus Day, the date was moved up to Oct. 9. So where are those checks?

Skeehan explained it's a complicated process. Workers fill out paperwork for a daily payroll and send it to Salt Lake City, where it's forwarded to the Denver office. There 35 clerks enter the data into the personnel system. There are some 4,000 census workers across a 10-state region who report their payroll to the Denver office, Skeehan said, adding they could have used 70 clerks to stay on top of the workload.

"It's really quite mind-boggling. It's a real catch-up game and new hires take one week longer."

If everything was running according to plan, after the initial two-week pay delay, census workers should be paid each Monday, but Skeehan says right now the payroll department is "trying to be very circumspect about making claims" about when census workers will be paid.

Skeehan said that by Christmas, the payroll department should be able to catch up on its workload. Skeehan does assure that the federal government is "good for the money."