Job seekers grab fliers stating current job vacancies with the D.C. Department of Employment Services on July 30 during Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2014 Citywide Hiring Fair at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

J. Jennifer Johnson worked 36 years, bought a rowhouse on its way up, dutifully fed her 401(k) and planned to retire in London with Wimbledon tickets. Now, she sits in the basement of a public library and admits: I have no idea what to do next.

This is a support group for the long-term unemployed, for job hunters with master’s degrees and GEDs. The others have suggestions. “They’re going to ask about the gap on your resume,” says the job coach, who runs the Job Club through Holy Trinity Catholic Church in D.C. “Have an answer ready. Be able to tell your story.”

Johnson nods, jiggling her gold hoop earrings, and scribbles in a notebook: Tell your story. Nine months ago, the 58-year-old career accountant lost her position at a defense contracting company in Arlington, Va. After applying for 100 jobs — and hearing back from only three — she landed at this table, every Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m., grasping for answers.

“My last interview, it was a group interview,” Johnson says. “The hiring manager asked, ‘How long have you gone without work?’ When I told him, his face just fell.”

Everyone nods, like: That makes sense. Three of them have searched  for jobs for two years.

“They don’t like to see that resume gap,” one woman says. “Have you thought about volunteering? That gives me something new to talk about in interviews.”

“I’m putting myself out there,” Johnson says, straining to find the words. “But it’s not working. It makes me … unsure of myself. I’m losing confidence.”

A defining characteristic of this economic recovery is the extraordinary number of people who were thrown out of work and remain unable to find jobs after months of looking. What unifies those job-seekers is a struggle against psychological forces, in employers’ minds and their own.

Today, 3.2 million Americans have sought work for six months or longer. That’s an improvement since the Great Recession, which killed 7.9 million jobs and pushed more than 40 percent of the job-hunting population into the economic quicksand of long-term unemployment. Recently, the share has dropped to 33 percent. But better numbers don’t necessarily reflect a better situation: Some people are taking temporary gigs, only to fall back into unemployment months later. Some have simply stopped looking.

It is still hard — illogically hard — for people like Johnson to get hired. There’s no evidence that spending months unemployed actually damages a worker’s future job performance. So, researchers wondered, as the labor market began to improve, why were so many people still out of work for so long?

The answer, they found, is psychological bias. Social stigmas stand between jobs and the jobless. Employers assume a fragmented work history indicates incompetence, according to a recent University of California Santa Barbara study. Last year, a Northeastern University team sent out thousands of fake resumes featuring six-month employment gaps to gauge employer response; they were routinely ignored.

Meanwhile, repeatedly rejected job seekers fear their own value is diminishing, which can affect interview performance and eagerness to keep trying. The problem compounds. The cycle continues.

Johnson is tall with cropped black hair, French manicured nails and a rotating selection of fitted blazers. She climbed the career ladder with ease for decades, nabbing roles at Cigna and Booz Allen Hamilton before settling into a management position at the Virginia defense contracting company.

She lost that position on a November morning. The staff was downsizing, her manager explained by phone, “effective today.” Johnson told herself, I’ll be fine.

One month without progress cracked her optimism. Nine months made it tough to get out of bed. A neighbor recommended the support group.

There, the fight for a call-back feels less personal, more baffling. The long-time job seekers’ stories blur together, swell into one: Employers don’t believe in me. It’s getting harder to believe in myself.

***


Job seekers wait in line to register before job hunting during the  2014 Citywide Hiring Fair at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on July 30 in Washington, D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On a late July afternoon, Johnson wanders into a job fair at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest D.C. She’s been here before, back when she could afford a new dress without blowing her grocery budget. She danced with her best friends at a 2013 Inaugural Ball.

Those same friends, who often call her with encouraging words, are now shopping in New York. She drove them to the train station.

It’s another reminder of the future slipping away. She can no longer plan for long weekend trips or international tennis matches, her life-long passions. Only survival.

Johnson’s heart sinks when she sees the line, winding through the second floor. “Nine thousand people,” a job fair employee tells her. Two hours elapse before she sees a booth. There’s one booth for every hundred people, Johnson figures. The first she visits: a utility company.

“Are you filling any financial roles?” she asks.

“Not at the moment,” the representative says. “Try our Web site in the future, though.”

Booths two and three, a mental health company and the Washington Nationals, tell her the same. Johnson trudges on, unsurprised.

But booth four, Georgetown University, triggers a jolt of adrenaline. Johnson knows they have openings. She applied for one — and meets every requirement. She summons her old sureness, which carried her through hundreds of meetings and presentations.

“I think I would be great for this job,” Johnson says, after briefly explaining her experience. “But I haven’t heard back. Can you tell me why?”

“We receive hundreds of applications,” the representative responds. “I’m sorry, but the managers don’t have time to reach out unless they’re interested.”

“I can tell you I’m qualified,” Johnson presses, holding out her resume.

“It’s very, very competitive,” the representative says, politely but firmly. “Feel free to keep checking our Web site, though.”

Hundreds of applications. Very, very competitive. Resumes like hers, Johnson senses, don’t stand a chance.

***

The next morning, she pulls on a navy Tahari blazer. She tucks her resume into a patent leather purse, the same she carried to her old accounting job. She wants to look like herself — a business professional with decades of experience.

Earlier that week, a friend connected her with a temporary employment agency. A health company recruiter promptly called Johnson to schedule an interview — and called again to confirm while she was at the job fair.

It was a blessing amid the disappointment, this opportunity for a two-month contract. A foot in the door.

“I personally picked your resume from the pile,” a hiring manager tells Johnson at the office on E Street NW. They chat in a conference room for 20 minutes longer than scheduled. The employment gap doesn’t come up — only the skills Johnson mastered from years of accounting.

We’ll let you know after the weekend, the manager says. Johnson smiles. There wasn’t a moment of awkwardness or, as far as she could tell, judgement.

Saturday and Sunday pass. Johnson clutches her cellphone Monday morning, waiting for it to ring. A friend calls, and she’s disappointed. It’s not the company.

She tries to focus on something positive. If she gets this contract, she will show them what she can do. She will prove herself, earn permanent employment.

If she does not, the support group will be there. Every Thursday, from 7 to 9 p.m. They’ve become her friends. They share her pain and story. They’ll share her joy when the first offer comes.

Danielle Paquette is a reporter covering the intersection of people and policy. She’s from Indianapolis and previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter: @Dpaqreport.