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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 2, 2010

Census expected to boost jobs report

By Nathan Olivarez-Giles and Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES When March employment figures are released today by the Department of Labor, analysts are expecting to see the biggest U.S. job gains in more than two years.

But perhaps half of the 200,000 or so positions expected to be added to payrolls may be the byproduct of a government effort that has turned into a fortuitous job generator: the U.S. Census.

The constitutionally mandated nationwide head count arrives this year at a crucial time after the start of the country's economic recovery, but before private-sector employers have created many jobs. That's a stroke of luck for the Obama administration, which has been criticized for failing to revive the labor market. And it's a windfall for the 700,000 temporary employees the census expects to hire, although most of the jobs will last only two to six weeks.

"It's a timely thing to be kicking in right now," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist for IHS Global Insight. "It's going to be a big help to bring people to the point where employment starts to pick up."

The census hiring, which is expected to accelerate in May and June as the census puts enumerators to work tracking down people who haven't mailed back their forms, is expected to boost today's national employment figures by anywhere from 50,000 to 125,000 jobs. That's a respectable number, considering the U.S. economy has experienced an almost unbroken string of monthly job losses since December 2007. Nearly 15 million Americans were unemployed in February, and the national unemployment rate was 9.7 percent.

In April 2000, the last time the department conducted the massive operation, the U.S. economy was booming. Back then, the bureau launched a huge recruitment drive touting $14-an-hour pay rates to lure workers.

No more. Census officials said recruitment phone lines have been buzzing with people requesting interviews.

Los Angeles resident Christina Coffey snagged a census job after being out of work two years. On Tuesday night, the 28-year old University of California, Berkeley graduate stood among throngs of people in the cold of a Dodger Stadium parking lot, where 1,500 newly minted enumerators gathered to pick up materials to count area homeless residents.

She and others are earning $17.90 an hour to search for transients. "To have a current and real paycheck with a 1099 and everything," Coffey said. "It's beautiful."

Some observers worry that the census hiring will do little but temporarily mask ongoing weakness in the labor market. Some analysts said it's unlikely that other parts of the economy will begin generating significant numbers of new jobs to take up the slack by the time census hiring winds down.

"It's helpful, it's in the right direction, but the amount of income being created is small compared to the overall size of a $14 trillion economy," said Dana Johnson, a chief economist with Comerica Bank.