The issue over whether state agencies can and should release the birth dates of public employees has been partially resolved by an Oklahoma County district judge.
In a summary judgment issued this afternoon, District Judge Bryan C. Dixon told state agencies to continue a process outlined last year by the attorney general. In effect, each state agency is supposed to determine whether releasing its employees’ birth dates constitutes an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
You can read Judge Dixon’s order here.
We are still digesting the order, but it looks like it’s not a clear win for any of the parties. Any appeals to the state Supreme Court are due in about a month.
First, some quick background: The case started with an Open Records request back in February by The Oklahoman for all names, job titles, employee identification numbers, hire dates, birth dates and salary information for all state employees. The request came as the Legislature was contemplating closing off some of that information.
The newspaper wanted the information to check the backgrounds of state employees. The birth date is a key secondary identifier if employees have similar names. Meanwhile, employee ID numbers are useful in tracking public employees if they get married, change jobs or change their names.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association, joined by an association of state troopers, filed a lawsuit to block the release of the birth dates and employee IDs. Other groups later joined the lawsuit, including the Tulsa World, other media groups and state agencies.
In today’s ruling, Dixon said that employee ID numbers are not subject to disclosure by any state agency. In effect, he agreed with arguments put forth by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of State Finance that knowing those could compromise the security of the state’s Employee Self-Service system for managing payroll information. The employee ID is used as the login for that system.
As our attorneys pointed out, this is despite the fact that we have been getting more than 36,000 employee ID numbers along with our regular monthly state payroll files since at least 2007. We stopped getting them in March. In his ruling, Dixon did not cite any specific statute limiting access to the employee ID numbers.
On birth dates, Dixon said state employees did not have any rights to individually challenge the disclosure of DOBs by state agencies on privacy grounds. That leaves the decision on disclosure to the heads of each state agency. The judge gave the agencies 60 days to make that decision. (The Attorney General’s office already provided a list of its employees’ birth dates to The Oklahoman back in March, before the OPEA and the troopers association filed their lawsuit.)
Finally, Dixon ruled that legislative personnel records are exempt from the Open Records Act. He ordered OSF and OPM not disclose “any records and personnel records concerning Legislative staff.”
This last point is confusing to me on several levels. First of all, does that mean the state should immediately stop putting salary information of legislative staffers on the Open Books site maintained by the Office of State Finance? Secondly, don’t taxpayers have a right to see who is working for their elected officials down at the Capitol?
The Census Bureau came out with new data yesterday on poverty, health insurance coverage and income at the national and state level.
I had a wrap-up of the highlights in today’s paper. Overall, it’s one of those “good news, bad news” reports.
Nationally, poverty rose and health insurance coverage declined in 2009, the Census said. Both are likely traced to the continuing recession.
In Oklahoma, the number of people in poverty declined to about 468,000 people, down from an estimated 484,000 in 2009. But you’d be hard pressed to find many people trumpeting the decline, especially as demand remains high at food banks and the number of people on food stamps continues to grow. (The Oklahoma Department of Human Services reports that more than 588,000 Oklahomans were on food stamps in June 2010, an increase of 19.5 percent from June 2009.)
As with any statistical report, the devil is in the details with the Census data. It’s important to note that this week’s numbers come from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, a long-running Census product that surveys 100,000 households each year:
The Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS ASEC) is designed to give annual, calendar-year, national estimates of income and official poverty numbers and rates. It is, nonetheless, used for many other purposes, including the allocation of federal funding.
. . . The Basic CPS is used to calculate the monthly unemployment rate estimates. Supplements are added in most months; the ASEC is conducted in February, March, and April with a sample of about 100,000 addresses per year. The questionnaire asks about income from more than 50 sources and records up to 27 different income amounts, including receipt of numerous noncash benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (formerly known as the food stamp program), subsidized school lunches, and housing assistance.
The Census tries to caution against too many state-to-state comparisons with the supplemental data, mainly because survey sizes at the the state level are sometimes too small to be meaningful in any given year. That’s partly why I used two-year averages when describing state-level changes in today’s story.
I called the Census yesterday for some explanation, but they needed to research the issue and couldn’t get back to me in time for the newspaper deadline. Here’s what Jessica Smith, a data specialist at the Census Bureau, said about the Oklahoma health insurance anomaly this afternoon:
We couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary with the data, but we don’t recommend people use single-year data for the CPS for single states because the sample sizes are too small.
Meanwhile, the Census will be releasing new data from its American Community Survey later this month. That survey uses a much larger sample size and a different methodology from the Current Population Survey. It will have details from smaller geographies such as counties and Congressional districts:
The American Community Survey (ACS), replaced the decennial census long-form sample questionnaire. The ACS offers broad, comprehensive information on social, economic, and housing data and is designed to provide this information at many levels of geography. During the 2000-2004 testing program, the ACS collected income data for a much larger sample than the CPS ASEC (about 800,000 addresses per year). Beginning in 2005, the ACS sample size grew to about 3 million addresses. As with the decennial census long form, the ACS relies heavily on questionnaire responses mailed in by respondents. These estimates are collected on a rolling basis every month throughout the year, and the questionnaire asks about eight types of income received in the previous 12 months. For example, those interviewed in January 2010 were asked about income received in the January to December 2009 period, and those interviewed in December 2009 were asked about the December 2008 to November 2009 period.
So, don’t be surprised if the American Community Survey data coming out Sept. 28 has a little different picture of the state’s economic and social well-being.