Published January 8th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Vivian “Alfie” Thompson knows a thing or two about drama. After all, she’s written several Harlequin romance novels.
Still, Thompson was shocked to be cast as the woman scorned in what appears to be the final chapter of her decades-long association with the U.S. Census Bureau.
The brush off came around Thanksgiving, when Thompson’s supervisor summoned her to the bureau’s office near 119th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park. Thompson tried to beg off, saying she was scheduled to help one of her colleagues recruit census workers at Union Station in Kansas City.
The supervisor said no. And by the way, she texted, bring along all the accessories of your work computer. That’s strange, Thompson thought, but the request made more sense when the supervisor demanded that Thompson either resign or be fired.
All the supervisor would say is that she’d had complaints that Thompson had been rude. The supervisor would provide no specifics. So, Thompson resigned, filling out her last time sheet and some paperwork confirming her resignation.
“It makes me mad,” Thompson said. “I don’t understand it.”
A bureau spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on personnel matters.
At 68 years old, Thompson is petite with short, light brown hair. She and her husband have lived in Gardner, Kansas, since his telecommunications job brought the couple here from Osage City, Kansas, in 1977. The couple has two grown children, a son and a daughter, both of whom live near their mother and father.
As the federal government gears up for the once-a-decade national headcount this year, officials say they need to hire about 500,000 temporary workers around the country to complete the constitutionally mandated task. The bureau estimates it needs about 3,100 workers in the Kansas City area.
Bureau officials acknowledge the challenge of hiring such a large temporary workforce when the economy is so strong. The bureau recently bumped up the hourly salary for field workers in most Kansas counties to better compete for applicants.
Senior citizens like Thompson offer a valuable talent pool, given that many of them have flexible schedules and experience in the workforce. Stay-at-home parents are another key demographic, and that is actually how Thompson got started with the Census Bureau back in 1980.
A neighbor told Thompson about the temporary census jobs, and she hired on as part of the pre-census operation where street teams verify addresses so that postal workers get the census forms into the hands of respondents.
Thompson stayed as a crew leader during the actual census, overseeing the “enumerators” who knock on doors to gather information from non-responding households. It was a nice way to help her husband pay the bills.
The 1980 census provided a springboard for Thompson to help fast-growing Johnson County conduct its own local headcounts in 1983 and 1985. A contact in the appraiser’s office recommended her for the coordinator position.
“I was basically working full time,” Thompson said.
By 1990, her writing career was taking off. So she skipped the census that year and the next one in 2000.
Thompson ended up writing 10 Harlequin romances under the pen name of Val Daniels. Her titles include “Silver Bells, “Forever Isn’t Long Enough” and “Making Mr. Right”
By 2010, the itch to work for the Census Bureau returned. She took an office job in North Kansas City as a team leader overseeing workers in Kansas and Oklahoma. Their job was to conduct post-census checks to verify the accuracy of the official count.
When the 2020 census rolled around, Thompson wanted to be back out in the field. She hired on as a recruiting assistant in Kansas, staffing events and taking the initiative to get the word out about census jobs through all sorts of channels. She was working 15 to 20 hours a week — sometimes more — for a little more than $18 an hour.
The origin of Thompson’s nickname came when she and her husband, Dan, were dating at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas, which is northwest of Hutchinson. He started calling her “Elf,” and that somehow morphed into “Alfie.”
She is from Haviland, Kansas, and he grew up in Lyons, Kansas. They married in 1971 — a white woman and a black man. Family members cried at the wedding, scared for the tribulations an interracial couple in rural Kansas would likely have to endure.
Thompson said the experiences of a mixed marriage prepared her for the job of talking with strangers through the census. She also happens to be someone who loves meeting and talking with new people, a product of her upbringing.
“Growing up in a small town puts you in a frame of mind that you have to prove yourself to people,” she said, “and you do that by being polite, and friendly, and open to what they have to say.”
When she was out in the neighborhoods for the census, she used her gut. If a situation didn’t feel right, she avoided it.
But she smiles at some of the more interesting experiences, like the time when a little boy tugged on her shirt after she left a neighboring house. That was his sales pitch.
“I gave him a quarter and took one of his cookies,” Thompson said. “I did not eat it. It did not seem like a good idea.”
Another time, a woman chased her down after Thompson had spent about half an hour chatting with a man while he filled out a detailed form. The lady was the man’s wife, wondering how on Earth Thompson had gotten the man to talk for such a long time.
Given the cryptic behavior of her former supervisor, Thompson can only speculate on what led to the resign-or-be-fired ultimatum. Perhaps the woman was intimidated by Thompson’s census experience, miffed perchance by an off-hand comment by Thomas that might’ve been construed as questioning the training provided by the supervisor.
Whatever is the case, two of her former census supervisors saw nothing that suggested Thompson was insubordinate or rude.
Nichole Harris is a field supervisor for the census bureau, based in Kansas City, Kansas. She oversaw Thompson when she worked a stint a few years ago gathering household information for a survey the Census Bureau does for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Harris said Thompson was “very communicative, very forthright, very eager to learn, eager to do well and welcomed any form of criticism to help her do a better job, and always wanted to assist her fellow teammates.”
Donald Dodge oversaw Thompson when she did the data gathering after the 2010 census. He worked on the census following his retirement from the Social Security Administration.
The two are polar opposites politically — he to the left, she to the right — but Dodge said they developed a friendship nonetheless. They still keep in touch through Facebook.
Dodge said he was “completely happy” with Thompson’s work.
“She is an assertive person,” he said, “and that is OK in my opinion.”
Given Thompson’s current situation, those words might be as comforting as half-truths spouted by a cheating husband in one of her novels.
Thompson is seeking assistance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a potential age discrimination claim. Thompson just wants to go back to work for the census bureau. She was really looking forward to one last hurrah, thinking she is going to be too old the next time around.
This story remains a cliffhanger, but Thompson knows how she would wrap it up.
“I am an optimist,” she said. “I like happy endings.”
Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205