The flood of men and women seeking applications for 70 unskilled federal jobs in Baltimore crested yesterday at 26,205, a turnout that has not precedent in recent American history, officials said.
"Seeing pictures of those lines almost reminded me of the Depression," said Donald Holum, chief of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's examination and planning section. We do get very large numbers of applications in unskilled categories, but I don't know of anything like this every happening before."
Although the job openings were not advertised on television or in newspapers, word of mouth carried the news across the city. The outpouring of aplicants -- almost all of them black, many of them on welfare -- received national press coverage and became a rallying cry for Baltimore community organizers.
About 40,500 Baltimoreans are out of work, according to government figures, and more than half of them picked up applications for the Social Security jobs.
Several community groups have scheduled demonstrations against federal employment policies for Sunday night at Baltimore's Convention Center at about the same time that Baltimore will be hosting the kickoff presidential debate inside before a national television audience estimated in the tens of millions.
"We want to protest to all the candidates about the callousness of this and any other administration toward the poor," said Robert Cheeks, a welfare rights organizer who is one of those planning the demonstration.
Yesterday was the deadline for mailing in the applications that were distributed all week at three locations in Baltimore. The jobs being offered are for worker-trainees in the Baltimore offices of the Socil Security Administrations. They carry annual salaries of $7,210 and $11,555 -- the lowest in the federal pay scale.
A Social Security Administration spokesman said officials will not know for several days how many people completed the applications that were distributed.
Lines began to form at the three application sites before 7 a.m. Monday. They stretched for blocks and, at the Garmatz Federal Office Building downtown, had to be controlled by security guards.
Those interviewed in the lines attributed the turnout to a desperation for work among Baltimore's poor and to the feeling that the federal government is the only secure employer in the city, where several large factories have laid off thousands of workers in the last year because of the recession.
The applicants had heard of the jobs through a variety of networks. Many black churches have organized job banks and several ministers announced the openings at church services Sunday. In addition, many of the applicants told jobless friends about the openings and came downtown in twos and threes to pick up application forms.
"This explodes forever the myth that the poor prefer welfare to work," said Ralph Moore, a housing activist in an inner city neighborhood. He and other community organizers said the turnout dramatized the depth of unemployment in Baltimore, particularly among minorities, where the jobless rate is 16.9 percent, the second highest in the country after Detroit.
Moore commented that although he and others have tried to organize the poor for political demonstrations in the past, none generated a response that compares to the turnout for the 70 federal jobs.
"I guess it says that people don't see the connection between political action and the job situation," Moore said. "We have 40,000 families on a waiting list for public housing in Baltimore. If we could get those people to line up for housing, our work would be a lot easier."
Social Security officials said the jobs carry no written examination and require no skills.
The jobs, which include clerical and warehouse work, are to be filled by January.