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Watchdog concerned over Census Bureau's vetting of workers

This April 5, 2020, photo shows a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. The U.S. Census Bureau needs more time to wrap up the once-a-decade count because of the coronavirus, opening the possibility of delays in drawing new legislative districts that could help determine what political party is in power, what laws pass or fail and whether communities of color get a voice in their states. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
This April 5, 2020, photo shows a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. The U.S. Census Bureau needs more time to wrap up the once-a-decade count because of the coronavirus, opening the possibility of delays in drawing new legislative districts that could help determine what political party is in power, what laws pass or fail and whether communities of color get a voice in their states. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Almost 300 people working for the U.S. Census Bureau last year had “major" issues with their background checks and a lack of vetting oversight could pose risk to the public and the agency as it hires and deploys hundreds of thousands of census takers for the 2020 census, according to a watchdog report released last week.

About 70 of the workers deemed to have “major" issues were in the field last fall, verifying addresses ahead of the once-a-decade head count of the U.S. More than a dozen other workers with some kind of derogatory information in their background checks had access to Census Bureau facilities and information systems, and they included employees working in positions deemed “critical" and “high risk," according to the report from the Office of Inspector General.

“Due to the lack of oversight of its background check program, the Bureau cannot reliably attest to the suitability of its decennial workforce — increasing the risk of exposing the public, the Bureau’s systems and facilities, and its employees to individuals who have not been properly vetted," the Office of Inspector General said in a management alert sent to the bureau.

Some 10,000 background checks for employees and contractors haven’t been evaluated, some dating back to 2014, the watchdog office said.

In a statement, the Census Bureau said the backlog of the almost 300 major cases had fallen to 200 cases, and the remaining cases will be evaluated by mid-June.

“When we hire U.S. Census Bureau staff, we are mindful of two critical objectives. Most importantly, we want to protect the public’s safety and trust. Secondly, we want to give every applicant who is fit to serve a fair opportunity to do so," the statement said. “When an issue turns out to be serious, we terminate employment."

Job candidates hired by the Census Bureau can start working while officials with another agency, the Office of Personnel Management, conduct background checks on them. If a red flag is found, it's categorized as minor, moderate, substantial or major. Once the background checks are finished, they are sent back to the Census Bureau for decisions on the candidates' suitability, according to the Inspector General's report.

Office of Personnel Management guidelines say a decision should be made within three months.

The Census Bureau needs to hire up to 500,000 temporary census takers to knock on the doors of homes where people haven’t yet answered the questionnaire for the 2020 census. That doesn't start until August after the coronavirus pandemic forced a delay from a May start. As of two weeks ago, more than 41,600 temporary workers were on the payroll, the bureau reported Tuesday.

The Census Bureau suspended field operations in mid-March because of the coronavirus crisis, but bureau officials said Monday that starting this week workers in a small number of cities will begin dropping off 2020 census packets at the front doors of homes that don’t receive their mail there or the mail delivery information for that household can’t be verified. About 5% of households are counted in this way.

Among the locations where the field operations were resuming are cities in Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.

The pandemic has forced the Census Bureau to push back its deadline for finishing the 2020 count from the end of July to the end of October. The bureau is also asking Congress for permission to delay deadlines next year for giving census data to the states so they can draw new voting maps.

The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding. As of Monday, almost 57% of households had answered the questionnaire.

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Follow Mike Schneider at: http://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP.