On a sweltering day in late summer, a line forms inside the Washington Convention Center. It starts with clumps of people, waiting with tapping feet and frayed nerves; then it grows into the hundreds, then thousands.
At the end of the day, organizers count a record-breaking 4,121 attendees at Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s 14th annual jobs fair in August, all seeking the one thing that eluded them in a long, tedious and fruitless search.
Lawmakers have abandoned the District to head home for recess, but the lower level of the convention center teems with people jostling among booths of prospective employers, including the Baltimore County Police Department and the Authentic Bartending School. Hopefuls drop off resumes, frantically fill out applications on the spot, and pick up tips from counselors on interview faux pas and dressing for success.
"We know that you need a job and that you're desperate," Lisa Mallory, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, tells the crowd. "Stay encouraged. Stay hopeful."
It is difficult advice for these job-seekers, a tiny fraction of the 14 million Americans out of work in the United States. Some have sought professional degrees, hoping to make themselves more palatable to employers; others haven’t finished high school. Most will continue to wait, praying that their personal fortunes defy the broader national economic landscape.
A little over a month later and some 20 blocks away — a straight shot south on Seventh Street and east on Independence Avenue — the line in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill is buzzing. Congress is back in session and so is the kvetching, gossiping, and chatter of Hill aides, young and old, who queue up over the lunch hour to buy cafeteria food.
There is jostling here too, among the tossed salads, soups, the American grill and global cuisine station, and a slow-moving line for wraps. (Members and staff get the perk of being fast-tracked). By 12:30, it takes some shouting to be heard above the din.
“Maybe the congressman will be in a better mood today,” one aide notes wryly after recounting the trials of getting a member ready for a trip abroad.
Four men chat at a table about upcoming hearings, checking their Blackberries between bites. Another aide takes one of his colleagues aside to explain how super committee proceedings will affect the next farm bill. Other diners gab about who’s in with the chief of staff and who’s not.
No one talks about missed mortgage payments, pinched family budgets, or the relentless anxiety of being out of work.
Back at the convention center, Rosa Burbridge is near the front of the line in a navy pinstripe suit and high heels, hoping today her luck will finally change.
Three years of unemployment can break a person’s spirit, Burbridge says, but she’s resolved to keep the faith.
“By the grace of God,” she replies when asked how she’s managed to keep afloat since being laid off as a senior information specialist at the National Association of Social Workers in 2008.
Since then, she’s skipped from one temporary gig to the next. Burbridge speaks longingly of the days that she used to have options, when every job paved the way for the next. These days, she’ll jump at just about anything.
Her last job was as a cashier at a KFC restaurant. It folded in May.
“Let’s just call it humility and wanting to eat,” she says. “Reality sets in. You learn things you never thought you’d have to. You learn about food pantries. You learn that you don’t need cable. You learn about how to get by without things. You learn how to be a survivor.”
Further back in the line, Ronald Henderson stands with slumped shoulders and rifles through his folio and wallet looking for proof of D.C. residence.
“It ain’t never been this hard,” he sighs.
Once upon a time, Henderson entertained dreams of working in culinary arts, maybe even as a chef, but these days, he’s not picky. His last job was with a wine distributor in 2009.
Henderson, a newlywed, has moved in with his in-laws as he and his wife try to make sense of their finances. It’s already put a strain on their young relationship, he says.
“It’s been like this, standing in line, going from place to place, going for the same job as hundreds of other people,” he says of his hunt. “I try to be optimistic. I keep trying…. I don’t know what else to do.”
The line zig-zags farther back into the convention center.
There is Lloyd During, who lost his job as a middle school custodian when his company’s contract was cut. With his unemployment benefits quickly winding down and his wife the sole income-earner providing for his 12-year-old daughter, During is starting to panic. If something doesn’t come through soon, “I think I have to get ready to get down on my knees,” he says. “It just breaks you down sometimes. But you can’t just stop.”
There is a woman who worked as a housekeeper for most of her life before business dried up. Another is looking for a job with better benefits. A young man searches for an IT gig after going to vocational school. There’s Deandra Gadsen Hunter, a 21-year-old who moved to Washington with a degree in criminal justice from North Carolina Central University, looking for “a grown-up job” only to discover retail work is the only thing available.
There is the one thing the unemployed in D.C. can take solace in: lots of company.
There is no shortage of career angst in Longworth – it's just of a very different variety.
One lobbyist dreams of working for a small boutique firm one day, where mindless conference calls and rampant bureaucracy won’t be the order of the day. His coworker nods sympathetically. Two junior staffers debate the merits of going to law school. Both appear unenthusiastic.
If asked, many of these aides talk about how they love public service, and how the glittering lights of the Capitol dome drew them to Washington. The money can get pretty good, too.
Entry-level salaries for congressional staff start at less than $30,000, but there’s the potential to climb into six figures. Some aides will stay on the Hill for the remainder of their careers; some will go on to earn law and other professional degrees; others will parlay their experience into high-paying jobs at lobby shops and consulting firms.
The eager young interns in the cafeteria dream of securing a permanent place on that career path. One of them worries that, despite his ace networking skills, he hasn’t been able to land a full-time job yet. He leans in across the table to ask his lunch partner—“So what do you think members look for in their legislative aides?”
Six miles away, across the Anacostia Freeway, Sean Gordy grows increasingly frustrated.
Gordy is a senior manager at the Department of Employment Services’ Southeast Career Center. His office is in some ways at Ground Zero of the jobs crisis in D.C.: Ward 8 boasts an astonishing 26.2 percent unemployment rate. It serves a primarily black clientele, many of them entrenched in poverty.
The steady line of people seeking Gordy’s help include high school dropouts, laid-off professionals and folks coming off stints in rehab or prison. Gordy and his staff can work around the clock to help them put their best foot forward, but they can’t pull jobs out of a hat.
Among the career center’s workers and the stream of people walking in every day, there’s a feeling that things are getting worse, not better, and that while the ranks of the unemployed continue to suffer, no one in federal government is stepping up to help ease their burden.
“What’s important to Congress is not important to us,” Gordy says. “We can’t even begin to talk about the deficit when we’re talking about our own family budget deficit, when we’re talking about moving in back home with mom and dad, when we’re talking about surviving on 12-bean soup.”
At Longworth, patrons have a choice of soups: turkey chili, carrot ginger, or curry vegetable lentil.
Meanwhile, in the Capitol, there’s no sign of a jobs plan jumping to the front of the legislative line anytime soon.