I saw an ad for a job. They were looking for temporary employees to educate people about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to help people sign up for coverage. It seemed like a worthy effort, so I sent in an application. They called me and I went through their application process. In the interview, the woman I spoke with seemed to think I would be a good fit and could probably work as a team leader.
Then there were a delay. I knew they were trying to get people in the field right away. They said something about my background check. I guessed that some poor shlimazel at the background check company had been assigned to read all of my blog posts and make sure I didn’t say anything wrong in them. Whatever the reason, we lost some days there.
But then they decided I was OK after all, so I went in for their training day. The idea of being a team leader had apparently gone away. That was not surprising; at this point, there were only a couple of weeks left in their signup campaign. It was dismaying to see, when I arrived, that another guy from my orientation group was signed up and hard at work by then. The situation so far was not shaping up as a real vote of confidence, but maybe that’s what someone like me — a blogger? an old guy? — must accept.
The basic story, I should mention, was that people had until March 31, 2014 to sign up for Obamacare, or else be penalized. It was not quite that simple in every case; but that seemed to be the reality for a lot of people, and apparently some of them might not become aware of it until the penalty was subtracted from their tax refund in April 2015. They might also go without healthcare unnecessarily, on into the indefinite future.
So now I was being trained to educate people about Obamacare and sign them up. The training started with a half-hour to get familiar with the organization’s tablet PCs. I hadn’t used a tablet before, and apparently neither had most of the lower-income people whom we would be approaching. So my little self-orientation session there, mostly browsing news reports on the CNN and New York Times websites, was perhaps an orientation to the kinds of tablet PC issues that people would be encountering when we visited their homes. Because, in the interests of privacy, we were not going to be entering their information into the computer: they would be doing that themselves.
I hadn’t used a tablet PC because I hadn’t needed one. In my computer use over the past 30 years, and in my extensive computer-related blogging over the past six or seven years, I had been able to do what I needed with desktop and laptop computers. I was sensitive to the perception that I might be stuck back in the Dark Ages, though, so I went along with the program and learned to use the tablet.
Or I guess I should say I tried to learn the tablet. It developed that my tablet had a problem. It was a problem that neither I nor the trainers could figure out. Eventually one of them took it away and did some kind of reset procedure. It was back in service within the hour. But I did wonder what would happen if it got into a cranky mood again while I was in the field.
That problem didn’t arise right away. First, after that initial half-hour of playing around with the tablet, we sat down with Mike, a trainer. Mike took us through the Obamacare website on the tablet. Eventually, when my tablet did entirely crap out, I borrowed his to see what was going on. Mike seemed like a political type, like someone I might have met as a political science major at Columbia. He didn’t seem very interested in people. He was a good trainer, though, and I believe I did get the gist of what he was showing us.
Mike didn’t see the need for toilet breaks, so after two hours I took it upon myself to stand up and head for the bathroom. I guess my timing was good. When I got back, he had been replaced by Charlotte, who was going to be showing us another part of the software. This was where things got kind of dicey for me.
One problem I had, a problem that had already surfaced during Mike’s portion of the training, was that the tablets were not very responsive. Whether using Mike’s or my own, I could sit there tapping in different ways, at different speeds, using different parts of my finger, and it would just not respond. Maybe it was something I would get used to, or maybe it was a matter of adjusting a simple setting; but whatever the situation, I was getting kind of frustrated. The trainers seemed to encounter that a lot. They were apparently hoping or assuming that I would get the hang of it eventually.
The problem with that was that the tablets were also small. They had tiny keyboards. My fingers are not as thick as those of some people, especially among those who do physical labor. If I was having a hard time hitting the right keys and otherwise getting the tablets to respond, I was quite sure that the people I would be talking to, out there in the field, would be having problems.
To me, as a researcher, you want to do your best to obtain good data and make sure it is entered into the system properly. Also, as a practical matter, you’re paying your employees to get people signed up – not to sit around struggling with recalcitrant hardware. I appreciated that these rubberized tablets were probably able to take a beating. They were probably cheaper than a laptop with a real keyboard. Maybe there was no way to accompany them with a full-sized (e.g., folding) keyboard. But in this line of work, it seemed like you would hesitate before sticking people with something that would have an inordinate risk of introducing data entry errors.
I don’t know how the organization’s actual decision process unfolded, but the thought did cross my mind that the purchasing decision might have been made by clueless yuppies in New York or Washington, so familiar with their little tablets that it would never occur to them that people out in the real world might have problems.
Charlotte took us through the next portion of the training. I found this segment challenging for a couple of reasons. One was that she went too fast. It wasn’t just me. None of the three trainees in my group seemed to be getting it. John, the guy at my left, was obviously spacing out as she zipped along. I was trying to follow her, but what was really happening, after a certain point, was that I was feeling stupid and thinking about these problems with the hardware. Evidently John and I were not alone: shortly after our three-hour training session ended, another leader called a meeting of the twenty or so people who had shown up to do canvassing that day, and in that meeting she complained that essential data was still not being entered into the tablets fully and accurately.
Another challenge in Charlotte’s portion of the training sort of crept up on me. It developed that this job was a little different from what I had expected. There had already been a hint of that when I discovered that we were not getting paid for this training day. I would have dealt with that. The problem was that they apparently weren’t being up-front about it. I don’t know; maybe I missed an announcement that everyone else heard. As far as I could tell, they never did tell us that the training was at our expense; that news just seemed to be slipped into one of the long documents they handed us. If that was right, then apparently some people would only find out when their paychecks arrived. Maybe some wouldn’t even notice then.
I became more concerned as Charlotte proceeded. Mike had been telling us how to get people started on HealthCare.gov and get them through the process of signing up for healthcare. That was right in line with what the ad had said we would be doing. Charlotte’s mission was to train us in the organization’s own software. It seemed that we were supposed to use this software for additional tasks that were not in the ad.
The organization’s software had two parts. First, there was the initial screen, where we would start our meeting with the targeted person. This initial screen asked for just a few items of information (e.g., name, address, email). Entering that data would automatically enroll the person on the organization’s email list. So in that sense, we were helping the organization gain potential clients and supporters.
I had a couple of problems with that. First, I did not want to be signing people up for this organization. Although I was not very familiar with the organization’s work and mission, I did believe it did good things. I knew, however, that the organization was controversial, and that many people disliked it. I felt it was potentially confusing to mix the organization’s own self-promotional agenda with the advertised task of educating and signing people up for Obamacare. I did not want to make anyone confused about the possibility that, for example, this organization’s involvement would somehow have some relationship with their healthcare coverage. It might seem that nobody should be confused about that, but in the real world people are busy. They are not all on my wavelength; they don’t all know what I know.
To me, if you want to sign people up for healthcare, sign them up for healthcare. If you want to get them registered to vote, get them registered to vote. If you want to persuade them to join or support the organization, then do that. But don’t confuse the issue. I had personal experience in this: I had been married, for some years, to a relatively high-ranking officer in the American Red Cross. I had seen how the Red Cross had sullied its reputation by confusing or misleading people. Indeed, its blood services people had personally messed me up by giving me false information during a blood donation.
If you’re going to hold yourself out as one of the good guys, engaged in a nonprofit mission for public benefit, then you have to live up to that. In this case, I felt it would be unfortunate if someone would pass up the opportunity to sign up for healthcare just because they didn’t want to take the risk of somehow becoming embroiled in, or contacted about, the organization’s favored projects. If we did have to use the organization’s software, at least we should have been telling them that they didn’t have to do it this way: make sure to give them the Obamacare URL and make clear they didn’t need our assistance to sign up.
Later in the interview, as Charlotte explained, we would be asking other questions. The purpose of these questions seemed to be to supplement the data contained in the organization’s data records about the person. This was another troubling aspect of the situation. Charlotte suggested ways to use artful questions to elicit personal information for the organization’s purposes. This plainly had nothing to do with the advertised purposes of educating and enrolling people in the government’s healthcare program.
I have to say, it was impressive, looking at the organization’s software. The business of door-to-door solicitation had come a long way since I had last dabbled in it. I had assumed that we would just be going from one house to the next, down the street, knocking on doors and dealing with whatever unfolded. But now, as we went through the training, I saw that they had online maps with targeted information on individual residences. We were going to be singling out a house here, a house there – not everyone on the block.
They didn’t explain why these particular people were being targeted, nor how or why the organization acquired this information about them. We plainly were not blanketing the city. Were we perhaps homing in on people who had previously contributed to the organization? Because in that case, we were not educating “people” in general about Obamacare: we were providing a special benefit to the organization’s supporters, or perhaps to those who would be very likely to vote a certain way. It seemed that I might be functioning as essentially an agent of the Democratic Party. I was not a member of any party, and was not interested in advancing that party’s agenda per se.
I am not suggesting that the organization was doing anything illegal in any of this. It felt unethical, insofar as it seemed to be departing from the parameters of the advertised job, and it felt sneaky, insofar as we and our targeted individuals did not seem to be getting the full story on what was happening.
It did seem like a good marketing opportunity for the organization. I could support an approach that would focus on the simple mission of getting people signed up for Obamacare. Then, afterwards, we could give them the option of learning more about the organization. If they were busy, or didn’t speak good English (as would apparently be true in some of the minority areas we might visit), or weren’t interested in talking to this strange man appearing at their door, at least I would have a bilingual brochure or an information sheet, sketching out the main points and giving them phone numbers and websites from which they could obtain further information. Indeed, I might be trained to approach them, from the outset, with that in hand, so that at least I could leave them with some kind of information if they didn’t want me to come in and sit down. Instead, unfortunately, it seemed that I was engaged in a sort of trade: I would help them with Obamacare if they would give this organization some of their personal information.
I do believe there were good reasons, from the organization’s perspective, for these various decisions. No doubt the people behind those decisions had a great deal of experience. My principal concern was that the priorities seemed to be oriented more toward promotion of the organization than toward the welfare of the people contacted. I did not know whether this was true of the organization as a whole; there was the possibility that the marketing division might follow a different ethic than the primary services divisions.
My own impression of the organization was less positive, after this training experience, than it had been before. I had positive interactions with both of the directors of this outreach operation; my concerns were mostly limited to the impressions I got from Mike and Charlotte during the training process. It did seem that their primary allegiance was to the organization rather than to the people served, and if that was correct, that was where we differed.
After the three hours of tablet PC training, we new recruits were supposed to go out in the field and shadow an experienced canvasser, to learn from his/her example. I did want to see that. No doubt some of my concerns would have been alleviated; perhaps there would have been some new concerns to take their place. Unfortunately, by this point I was dealing with a headache. It started sometime during the training, possibly when I started feeling stupid about not being able to keep up with Charlotte. So I begged off and went home for the balance of the day. Predictably, the headache vanished not long after I got home.
A friend wondered if I could explain my concerns to the people at the organization. I said I could, but there had been no indications that any of this was flexible or negotiable. They hadn’t even invited feedback. I had also seen the trainers’ attitudes. I did not believe that they would have much interest in my perspective. I probably would have tried nonetheless, if we had been talking about a more extended employment. But with just a few weeks left in their campaign, I decided to let it go and just be content to record these remarks about this sort of position.