For the past six months, said Mary Massey as she waited for her unemployment check, she's been trying to find work as a domestic in a nursing home.
Like a growing number of Washingtonians in the statistical swamp that is the District's unemployment world, however, she has found that the work just isn't there.
Despite a seasional fair-weather increase in construction and tourist industry jobs, a hardcore pool of unskilled and specially skilled workers like Mary Massey remain without work, with little immediate prospect of solving their problem.
Many cities absorb their unemployed workers in industries requiring only basic entry-level skills, but Washington has no such industry, city officials note.
The result is a force of potential workers, the exact size of which remains unkown, for whom the unemployment check remains a greater reality than the paycheck.
Many, like Mary Massey, hover somewhere between frustration and despair.
Massey, a northeast Washington resident for 20 years, said she lost her job as a domestic about six months ago when she became ill and required about a month's recuperation. Her employers told her they were forced to hire a replacement during her illness.
Her $69-a-week unemployment compensation check, her only source of income, will run out shortly. In the meantime, Massey, who lives alone, has to budget her money tightly to meet the $84-a-month rent on her tiny northeast Washington apartment, plus utilities, telephone, doctor, medical and food bills.
"What I am looking for is a job where I can work weekdays and have the weekends off to go to church," said Massey, a deeply religious woman who attends Purity Baptist Church and sings in the choir. "I don't want motel work, I want to work in a home, even a nursing home. But I have not been able to find anything that wasn't too far away from my home."
There are other stories like Massey's. A 26-year-old lawyer, a graduate of Georgetown University's law school, a woman with shortcropped black hair and large eye glasses, also has been trying to find a job for six months.
"Washington has too many attorneys," she said, as she gathered her application forms in her arms. She asked not to be identified. "In this town, if you don't work for yourself, you work for the government, and the federal government just isn't hiring right now. I'm giving up. I'm going out west someplace where the cost of living isn't so high and there aren't so many lawyers."
Scott Nessa from St. Cloud, Minn., a 26-year-old environmental planner, has a masters degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"The work ethic was always important in my home, and we were taught that you should always take care of your own needs, not rely on the government," Nessa said. "It goes against the grain to be here, filling out these forms-but you have to live."
Nessa said much of his work depends on federal grants, and when the grants end, so does his job. For the past five weeks, he said, he has found only part-time work in an aspect of environmental planning he has no interest in-garbage. Even for that job, he said, "funds are running out."
"I have been living on my savings, but that has run out. My next step is to sell my car, but before I can do that, I have to get money here (unemployment compensation) to fix my car so I can sell it. For me, the whole market system has broken down because I cannot get a job."
Officials in the D.C. Department of Labor say jobs have actually appeared to be more available in the District in the past few months.
The trend was first noted, they said, in January, when the number of people holding jobs in the District jumped 1,300 from December to 305,900. The unemployment rate, however stayed at 7.4 percent.
The trend continued in February, officials said, despite the heavy snowfall which slowed attempts to find work.
George Jackson, assistant director of the Labor Department's Office of Unemployment Compensation, said compensation claims have been dropping steadily from 53,630 in January to 10,865 for the week ending March 24.
While that sounds like good news, Labor Department officials note that June will see another surge of jobless workers into the market with the end of the school year. And then there are those left out of the figures altogether.
"The current unemployment statistic for the District of 7.4 percent is supposed to include those ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits and those who don't register with the service, but-there is no way the figure could be that low," said Larry Stacey, chief of the division of benefits at the Unemployment Compensation Board.
A Washington Urban League study released last month indicated a 24 percent unemployment rate exists among persons living in six low-in-come areas of the city. The study showed that 74 percent of the unemployed responding to the survey had been jobless for more than a year and that 67 percent of those did not use data-keeping referral services, such as the city's employment service, to look for jobs.
While Urban league officials admit few conclusions about the city's employment picture can be reached from such a study, they say it does show a critical unemployment problem that threatens to worsen as minority teenagers enter the work force later this year.
"The population we sampled by income is 37 percent of the population of the District and is 42 percent of all district households," said John Watkins, spokesman for the Washington Urban League.
"It is unlikely that a decrease in the number of people who filed unemployment compensation claims is going to reflect the unemployment picture for low-income minorities."