Camden teens worked to boost census turnout, but say they got shortchanged

This summer, Nyzia Easterling, left; and teen census workers, from left to right; Eternity Easterling, 14; Janiayah Williams, 16; and Shayla Ingram, 16; pose for a picture while manning a table in a Camden park to promote census awareness. (Courtesy of Saving Grace Ministries)

This summer, Nyzia Easterling, left; and teen census workers, from left to right; Eternity Easterling, 14; Janiayah Williams, 16; and Shayla Ingram, 16; pose for a picture while manning a table in a Camden park to promote census awareness. (Courtesy of Saving Grace Ministries)

It sounded like a good opportunity during a pandemic summer: a couple of dozen teens and a few adult leaders would be paid to hit Camden’s streets to raise awareness for this year’s U.S. census.

In a city where fewer than half the residents have completed the census as the deadline approaches, the need was certainly there. The self-response rate for Camden residents is nearly 20 points behind that of New Jersey as a whole, which stood at about 66%.

“They worked hard,” said Nyzia Easterling, director of Saving Grace Ministries, the organization that partnered with Camden’s Department of Human Services on the project. “And it was hot. And it was COVID.”

If only, said Easterling, they’d all been paid for their efforts.

On September 8, Laverne Dantzler holds up a letter she received in August for an offer of part-time employment from Camden’s business administrator. Dantzler had taken vacation and sick time from her nursing job to supervise the teens doing census work, and has so far only been paid for 25 of the hours she worked. (April Saul for WHYY)

For at least some of the residents that knocked on doors, put posters up in bodegas and sat at tables in front of supermarkets from the end of July to the beginning of September, the census work was at best marred by misunderstandings and at worst, a story of broken promises.

Easterling, who founded her organization to help children who have lost family members to homicide, said she was enlisted by Director of Camden DHS Carmen Rodriguez to recruit youths and adults for the work and lead the effort, funded by a grant to the county. By verbal agreement, a paid training for all involved was held at the end of July at City Hall and they began working immediately after that.

In July, Easterling said she drew up a document titled Independent Contractor Agreement between Rodriguez and Saving Grace, which named her as coordinator and five other adults as supervisors; the budget was $11,450. She said that Rodriguez insisted the agreement be dated August 17, 2020, even though the group had started working on July 31, and both women signed it.

This summer, Shayla Ingram, 16; poses after planting a yard sign in Camden to promote census awareness. (Courtesy of Saving Grace Ministries)

Three weeks later, Easterling said Rodriguez told her she didn’t have enough money left to fulfill the original agreement; Rodriguez amended it in a document titled Proposal for Services to Expand Census Outreach, which lowered the number of adult mentors to four and the budget to $7,680. Again, the date of August 17 was used; Easterling said they signed that one as well. It stipulated a six-week period of work as per Rodriguez’s request, from mid-August to Sept. 30.

Easterling said she knew something was wrong when the teens whose salaries were being funded by the county had received several paychecks, but the others had not. That was when she was told by Rodriguez, she said, that the county would cover the costs of the first 20 youths that signed up and that the city was paying the salaries of the rest.

Rodriguez declined to comment on the situation. Camden Mayor Frank Moran said that four city youths were hired under the annual Community Development Block Grant “to assist with creating awareness for the census,” with four adults’ salaries to be reimbursed by the county.

“The four kids and four adults were hired under no contract,” Moran said.  “They’re not contractors.”

On Sept. 8, Saving Grace Ministries director Nyzia Easterling, left; with Sheila Ingram, and Ingram’s daughter Shayla Ingram, 16, who worked this summer in Camden to promote census awareness. (April Saul for WHYY)

Meanwhile, husband and wife supervisors on the project Brian and Kizzy Murphy panicked on August 15 when Rodriguez gave them paperwork that said they’d be officially hired two days later, and were required to undergo drug testing and background checks.

“I said, ‘Carmen, what does this mean?’” Kizzy Murphy recalled. “We’ve been working since July, how are we going to be compensated for that time? She said, ‘Don’t worry, I got it, I’m going to make sure you guys get your back pay.” At the same time, Easterling said, Rodriguez assured her that the “back pay” would come out of a future grant to Saving Grace Ministries — money that has yet to materialize.

By Sept. 4, the “county kids” had received four paychecks — including one for the training. Many in that group also received $100 worth of gift cards from the Pennsauken-based Community Planning and Advocacy Council for their efforts. The “city kids” were still waiting.

Easterling, who said she had emailed Mayor Moran for several weeks with no response, was frustrated enough to spend all day at Camden City Hall, insisting she wouldn’t leave until the others were paid.

Finally, shortly before 4 p.m. on Sept. 4, Easterling said the city cut checks for four of the teens, but only for 37 hours of work. Easterling estimated that the kids had worked more than 200 hours at that point because Rodriguez had requested they promote the census at special events in the city on weekends as well. The same day, the city mailed out checks to three of the adult workers, but only for 25 hours of work each.

Moran said checks are being cut for all city employees this week, and that the youths “weren’t shortchanged.”

Friday, Rodriguez texted Easterling that “as of today kids will be made whole,” and the partially paid “city kids” and their parents went to City Hall to claim their checks.

Kysaan Bright, 16, got one for $49.97. Janiaya Williams’ check was for $54.96.

The teens and their parents were furious. They claimed the students had worked at least 25 hours a week for six weeks, even though after the work was completed, Easterling was informed by Rodriguez that only the “county kids” would be compensated for the 25 hours while the “city kids” could only be paid for 20. Even at the lower number, they said they’d only been paid thus far for about 40 of 120 hours.

Rodriguez told the families more money would be coming in the mail, but they are skeptical.

“Where is the other 80 hours?,” asked Williams’ mother Jasmine Shelton. “It’s like a runaround named Carmen. I think the money was stolen!”

Williams, 16, wishes she’d gotten a different summer job. “Honestly, I don’t really care about the census but I like Miss Ny and she always looked out for me,” she said. “It was frustrating to watch the other kids get paid and we didn’t get one check … it was so unprofessional.”

Tracey Bright says son Kysaan is “still very upset.”

“I would never have my child work for the city again,” said Bright. “That’s why Camden will never change. Because when kids do positive things, this is what they get. When they do something negative it’s exposed to the thousandth power, you never hear the end of it.”

Earlier this week, Rodriguez had texted the adult mentors that she was “working to finalize the agreement with Saving Grace.” On Friday, she messaged Easterling that staff checks would be in the mail, and that Easterling would now have to invoice her for some of the money.

Neither Easterling nor her daughter, Eternity Easterling, 14, who also worked on the census project for three weeks, have thus far received any compensation.

“I’m so mad,” said Easterling. “You’re not just doing this to me, you’re doing it to the kids, and mine is one of them. So it’s personal now.”

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