While Census takers in the U.S. Virgin Islands now have until Oct. 18 to capture an official head count of the territory, the extension is not all roses, as many field workers who were previously available in the summer will now be leaving and put a shrinking Census staff in a precarious race to the finish line.
Frank Mills, census manager for the St. Thomas-St. John district, said he has lost nearly half of his initial workforce since March. He started with roughly 400 census takers, and he is now down to about 195.
Lorna Williams-Sutton, census manager for the St. Croix district, spoke of a similar drop, from roughly 500 applicants to just over 200 active field workers today.
“We don’t have the kind of numbers that we would like in the field, and the fewer people working in the field, the slower the numbers coming in,” Mills said.
The departures have been linked to several factors, from workers returning to full-time jobs to parents wanting to stay home as their children prepare for virtual schooling. Some of the younger workers have returned to college, while others were just wary of COVID-19 and didn’t want to risk further exposure.
Collectively, the loss has put an added strain on the remaining census staff, who in the next six weeks must finish counting the territory’s population as accurately as possible. Doing so will impact how much federal funding flows to the territory and shapes the future of infrastructure, health care, education and other needs of the community.
“We have a duty to perform,” Williams-Sutton said. “We’re like the postal service. They say that they deliver [rain or shine] so we too have to do what we can to ensure we count everyone, or else we’ll be shortchanging ourselves.”
For Mills, that means getting creative in retaining workers and going as far as providing a cash prize for those who reel in the highest residential counts.
“We’re trying to ensure that the workers that are still active give us maximum output in terms of hours in the field,” he said. “So, we have come up with a plan to give some specific incentive to these workers, like we would give the top 10 in a particular area a cash incentive, so it fires them up, makes them want to win.”
Mills said it is equally important to educate the public about the Census. That means demystifying its purpose and encouraging residents, particularly those in gated homes and gated communities who have willfully ignored Census takers, to stop being “selfish.”
“Those persons are doing damage to the entire community,” Mills said. “They may be able to afford it for themselves, but there are lots of other people in the community who suffer as result when you have persons taking that position.”
Both Mills and Williams-Sutton acknowledged the challenges brought on by COVID-19, from the multiple stay-at-home orders that paused operations to the wariness of residents and workers in the field.
As such, both implored the public to call the local Census call center at 340-718-2020 as an alternative if they haven’t yet been contacted by an enumerator.
“We’re appealing to the public to call in, because even with the extension that we have, we’re not going to rely on the extension,” Williams-Sutton said.
“We just want to ask residents who have not yet done this for whatever reason to give it a second thought in the interest of their fellow Virgin Islander,” he said.