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.