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Workers Hurry to Complete Virgin Islands Census

Census taker Shyla Marshall-Almestica counts residents in Campo Rico. (Photo courtesy Karen D. Williams)

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it will discontinue counting the nation’s population at the end of September, a month earlier than planned. The local organization is ahead of the game and planned all along to complete its tally by that date.

“We’re 85 to 90 percent completed today,” Tomas Encarnacion, the U.S. Census advisor directing the enumeration of the territory’s population on St. Croix, told the Source this week. “I’m pushing to complete [it] because of hurricane season.”

The population numbers, recorded every 10 years, determine federal funding for communities, as well as congressional seats and Electoral College votes. The numbers are also used to determine what new roads, hospitals and schools are eligible for funding.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled the efforts of census takers. The Virgin Islands organization was closed from March until June 1. Before taking to the streets, workers received COVID-19 training as part of their job training. They are mandated to wear masks and observe social distancing.

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So that residents can identify census workers, they wear T-shirts, vests and identification badges from the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of the Virgin Islands, where they were hired and trained.

According to Karen Williams, U.S. Census partnership specialist for St. Croix, census takers do not enter homes but interview residents in the open air where they can maintain social distancing. If residents don’t want to answer questions face-to-face, they can ask the census taker for an identification number and respond by phone.

“Census takers are you and me from the community,” Williams told the Source. “They are trained in sensitivity and customer service.”

Workers call on a house up to three times and if no one is at home, they leave a flyer with a call back number so the resident can give information over the phone to reschedule the visit.  Census takers ask for basic data, such as name, age, gender, employment and how many people live in the house.

Williams said that the information gathered by census takers is only used to count the U.S. population. The information is “very protected,” and the local government does not have access to it. Everyone who works for the bureau takes a privacy oath and faces prison time for disclosing any information.

There is a field office in both districts with a manager and a clerk. On St. Croix, over 100 census takers work in eight specific areas using aerial maps. Back at the office, the completed forms are scanned by the clerks for completeness, sealed in an envelope and locked in a room. Then the forms are mailed to Washington, D.C., for tabulation. Finally, the data is delivered to the president on Dec. 31.

Special populations have been counted as well as those in residential areas. Williams said homeless individuals were surveyed in downtown areas during the night, and proxies, under oath, counted prison inmates. Boating communities have also been tallied. Group homes, hospitals and health care facilities were “difficult” this year due to the virus. Williams said they are still working with refinery administrators on a plan to tabulate workers at Limetree Bay Terminals.

Both Williams and Encarnacion stressed the importance of participating in the census. Even undocumented residents should make a point of being counted. They won’t be asked for any incriminating evidence, and the more people that are counted the more federal funds the Virgin Islands will qualify for.

“It’s important because we are living in a world of change. There are hurricanes and people come and go. Ten years ago, the needs were different,” Williams said.

“We only collect the numbers every 10 years. If we’re unable to collect all of the numbers, it will impact the community over the next 10 years,” Encarnacion said.

In April, the Trump administration requested a delay in the deadline until the end of April to report the final numbers. The measure would have extended redistricting deadlines by four months. Since it was not passed by lawmakers, the date to finish the national program was moved to Sept. 31. If it had been approved, redistricting plans in many states would have been thrown off their filing deadlines for off-year elections in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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