Millions represent the face of 10.2 percent joblessness

By V. Dion Haynes and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

For Lisa Hall, this is what 10.2 percent unemployment looks like: spending all day at shopping malls going from one store to another in search of a $10-an-hour job, but being constantly told that no one is hiring.

For M&M Appliance in Northwest Washington, this is what a jobless recovery looks like: Even though sales are up on high-end kitchens, the owners have no plans to fill several key positions lost through layoffs and will continue to have a decimated staff juggle numerous jobs.

While signs abound that the economy is growing, employers throughout the region and across the country illuminate the stark picture painted by the government's unemployment data released Friday. Officials at many businesses say they are maintaining hiring freezes initially imposed earlier this year, and some are even planning a fresh round of layoffs in the new year. The few companies in hiring mode are flooded with applications: General Electric received 10,000 online applications for 90 $13-an-hour positions assembling washing machines at a plant in Louisville.

"We were totally overwhelmed by the response," GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman said.

Particularly hard hit in the October job losses were blue-collar and low-wage positions, which have been most vulnerable to cuts throughout the recession.

The construction industry lost 62,000 jobs in October alone as demand for housing continued to drop. The sector has lost 1.6 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

Employment in manufacturing dropped by 61,000 jobs, stung by consumers' diminished demand for both appliances and clothing.

And retail shed 40,000 jobs in department stores, book stores, music stores and sporting goods stores.

"I have to put in my time finding a job like it's an eight-hour job," said Hall, 50, of Capitol Heights, who regularly spends all day at malls going from one store to another filling out applications and dropping off her résumé.

Hall, who estimates that she's filled out 100 applications since losing her job as a teacher's aide last spring, added, "Their favorite thing to say is, 'We're not hiring, call us back.' You keep calling and calling and calling, and they never call back." Many companies have found ways to boost productivity with smaller work forces, and will hold off on hiring until the middle of next year, economists say. "They will continue to try to squeeze their existing workforce and will not hire until they absolutely have to," said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR, a consulting firm in New York.

Davis Construction of Rockville has cut back to 400 employees from 500 over the past year as business has slowed. The bulk of its work these days is government-funded buildings, such as a project at Aberdeen Proving Ground that's part of the military base's consolidation effort.

"It used to be 90 percent in the other direction with privately funded projects, but now it seems like everything we're doing -- or looking to bid on -- has government money or a government need behind it," said Dennis Cotter, senior executive vice president at Davis. He said he has no plans to do major hiring.

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