Soon the Boston regional office of the US Census Bureau will become one of its own statistics.
The office, which helps conduct the household survey used to estimate the unemployment rate, will close in December displacing more than 60 workers and moving oversight of the region to the agency’s New York City office.
The Boston office, which has served New England since the 1940s, is one of six regional offices slated to close by the end of the year to save a combined $18 million in salaries and overhead.
The regional offices are among the recent casualties of government cutbacks that have resulted in job losses, slowing the economic recovery and overall employment growth. Since the beginning of 2011, the private sector has increased its payrolls by more then 3 million jobs nationally, while federal, state, and local governments, squeezed by the sluggish economy and tax collections, have cut more than 300,000 jobs.
In Massachusetts, government employment has fallen by nearly 3,000 jobs over the past year, even as private sector employment in the state has grown by more than 45,000 jobs. The Labor Department expects those losses in government jobs to continue, projecting that federal government will shed another 400,000 jobs by 2020.
Nigel Gault, chief US economist for IHS, a Lexington forecasting firm, said government job losses and the subsequent reduction in spending power by laid-off employees, is contributing to the weak US recovery. “In an economy without too much momentum,” he said, “any drag just drags us down a little further.”
The Boston regional office, which covers New England, upstate New York, and Puerto Rico, employs 64 full-time and temporary workers in charge of facilitating the work of more than 800 full- and part-time field workers, who work mostly from home. The field workers help conduct the decennial census as well as other surveys, including the household survey used to calculate the state and national unemployment rate, the national health and crime surveys, and the consumer expenditure survey.
The field workers will keep their jobs, but report to the regional office in New York. Census officials said technological advances have made it easier for employees to work remotely and have made the office increasingly obsolete.
“It’s winding down,” said Boston regional director Mario Matthews. “Because of technology, we’re able to have more people work from home.”
Some local officials worry that the loss of the Boston office could make it more difficult to challenge and correct population estimates that determine the distribution of billions of dollars in federal aid. Census estimates for Massachusetts’ population in 2000 and 2010 were criticized for undercounting, particularly in neighborhoods where residents may be concerned about disclosing their immigration status.
State Representative Jay Sanchez, a Boston Democrat and a leader in the city’s efforts to ensure an accurate count during the 2000 Census, said it was helpful to have access to census officials located here to address concerns. City officials considered taking the federal agency to court to challenge the low counts in Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods in 2000, he said, although they ultimately did not take that step.
“It’s good to have the office,” Sanchez said. “You’re able to challenge the count locally as opposed to having to challenge somebody in New York who has absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
Secretary of State William F. Galvin , Massachusetts’ liaison with the bureau for the 2010 Census, said the closure of the Boston regional office could lead to further undercounting problems because someone in New York might not understand the idiosyncrasies of Massachusetts’ unusual local government structure, which includes hundreds of independent cities and towns.
“I think we’ll lose something in the translation, so to speak,” Galvin said. “It’s helpful to have people who are more familiar. I’m not saying people in New York can’t do this work, but I see it as a loss from our point of view.”
Census officials said they did not expect the closure to significantly alter operations. Kathleen Ludgate, director of the Boston regional office for 28 years until her retirement last year, said the agency plans to hire additional field workers.
“I do not see a negative impact on the data we’re collecting for the surveys,” she said.
Ludgate, who helped plan the closure, said displaced office workers are eligible for other federal jobs, early retirement, or buyouts. Others maybe relocated.
Matthews, who earns $127,000 a year as the Boston office director, said he will take an assistant director position in the bureau’s Philadelphia office. He said about 16 people in the office are eligible for a buyout and nine are retiring.