Fort Mill Times

Census job + new wife = new life

Robert Littlefield and Tina Gerace always knew they would get married.

The Fort Mill couple dated for three years and talked about marriage.

“Unless there’s a ring and a date, there’s no engagement,” Littlefield said.

So the couple went ring shopping, visiting about five stores before returning to the first Rock Hill store, where Gerace found a ring, a peridot surrounded by diamonds. Littlefield, 46, asked to see the ring.

“Tina kept asking me, ‘What are you doing?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘I just want to make sure it’s the right fit, that you like it on your hand.’”

The clerk passed Littlefield the ring, and he put it on Gerace’s ring finger.

“She was looking at her ring with her hand in her face,” he recalled. “That’s when I got down on one knee. I said, ‘Tina, I love you. Will you marry me?’ She said, ‘Yes. Of course. Yes.’”

While the officially engaged couple basked, Littlefield had to fix an immediate problem: The U.S. Army veteran was unemployed.

For more than 12 months, Littlefield looked for work. Now, he has joined the ranks of the employed, thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I am excited about working for the government,” Littlefield said recently. “I am getting paid to help people.”

The U.S. Census Bureau is on a mission.

Every person must be counted to help officials get an accurate snapshot of just how many people live in America. Most people in Fort Mill Township and the surrounding areas received their 2010 Census questionnaire two weeks ago, said Jan Smiley, Rock Hill Census office manager.

“Now that you have the form in your house, don’t let it get buried in a stack of mail,” she said. “Fill it out and mail it back.”

It takes 10 minutes to answer 10 questions. Seven of those questions also are directed at other household members. Failure to answer those questions presents long-term repercussions, Littlefield said.

“We missed out on a lot of money [for South Carolina] 10 years ago because of lack of Census returns,” he said. “If people don’t get counted, we don’t get the amount of federal funding that we deserve.”

So, what’s at stake?

South Carolinians getting their fair and correct share of more than $400 billion in federal money over the next 10 years.

Information obtained from the questionnaires also affects the political arena via redistricting; documenting a population increase can mean another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Bride-to-be, no job

Littlefield, a four-year Fort Mill resident, was formerly employed with a newly established Charlotte-base water, fire and smoke restoration company. About seven months into his new job, his boss meted out some bad news, Littlefield said.

“It was not a great time to start up a business,” he said. “He gave me the head’s up that he was not able to retain me.”

That wasn’t great news for Littlefield, the father of one, who hoped to marry his girlfriend. First he had to “win” approval from Gerace’s father.

“He is old-school,” Littlefield said of his father-in-law, Frank Gerace. “I had to ask him for her hand in marriage. Can you imagine having to face the Sicilian daddy whose looking at you thinking, ‘You’re the unemployed guy who wants to take my daughter away.’”

Littlefield won Gerace’s favor, but that was half the battle.

“It was awful. It was tough,” Littlefield said of trying to gain employment. “It’s a tight market out there.”

Though he stayed positive, Littlefield wondered.

“How long is this going to last?” recalled Littlefield, who earned a bachelor‘s degree in mass communication/advertising.

After learning the Census Bureau was accepting applications, Littlefield applied and in December 2008 took the required test.

“Since I knew that they’d already hired for two operations, I thought I was out of the running,” said Littlefield.

Meanwhile, Tina saw the light at the end of the tunnel, he said.

“She told me, ‘Don’t worry. I have faith that you are going to get a job,’” Littlefield recalled. “It was have faith. Step out. I did, and then I got the job.”

That post came in November 2009.

“They called out of the blue saying, ‘Are you still interested in a job with the Census Bureau?’” he recalled of the telephone call that landed him a clerk position.

The next month, Littlefield applied and interviewed for his current position, office operations supervisor for field operations.

“I’m very blessed to have this job,” he said

As America emerges from the Great Recession, unemployment remains high.

In January, unemployment was 1.4 percent in York County. It’s worse elsewhere: 22.3 percent in Chester County and 19 percent Lancaster County, Annie Reid of the Rock Hill Workforce Center said.

As the country emerges from its Great Recession, some employers remain reluctant to take on new hires. However, the Census Bureau is still accepting applications for various positions, including support positions, office clerks and field supervisors, Smiley said. About 1,600 people will be hired to fill Census-related posts. Those hired in field positions earned about $14 and are reimbursed 50 cent per mile for Census-related travel. Office clerks earn $10.50 while crew leaders earn $15.50 and field supervisors can earn $17, she said.

Now, the ring with the diamonds and peridot centerpiece – a tribute to Littlefield and Gerace’s August birthdays – is joined by a wedding band. The couple recently got married.

“A month and 11 days ago,” Littlefield said.

And he stays busy with the Census Bureau.

“I started out as a clerk, and I was promoted the following month,” he said. “That was really strange after being unemployed for just over a year.”