The names, the faces and the stories behind the District of Columbia's mounting unemployment rate form a Monday morning collage of anger, disillusionment and frustration at the city's Employment Services building on C Street NW.
There, arms folded and leaning against a wall, is 25-year-old Darrell Johnson, whose bitter words reveal his rage agianst the system, the Republican administration and his own inability to find a job after months of searching. He waited four months for his first unemployment check, he said. Someone finally told him he had made a mistake on his forms.
There is Melvin Ezell, a proud man of 40 who never before collected unemployment, but had no recourse after being laid off from his janitor's job at Mt. Vernon College.
And there is the silver-haired Daniel Vaughn, who looks strangely out of place with his black attache case, sports jacket, crisp white shirt and tie. He was an adviser to the U.S. Regulatory Commission and a paid consultant to the Carter campaign last year and has been unemployed, he said, since the campaign ended in November.
The most recent statistics from the D.C. Department of Employment Services show that D.C. unemployment is up to 8.9 percent from 7.4 percent one year ago. Meanwhile, unemployment in the Metropolitan region has remained relatively stable at about 4.5 percent. The statistics, however, tell only one dimension of the story.
A combination of elements brings hundreds of unwilling recruits every weekday morning to be unemployment office. Some of them are a walking reflection of the dismal statistics that show most of the unskilled jobs to be in the suburbs. For others, the dilemma is the opposite -- they are told they are over-qualified in a city glutted with lawyers and consultants. They illustrate, in human terms, the consequences of the new austerity in federal hiring and contracting in a city whose principal industry is government.
They are all District residents who, in their most trying times, come face to face with a bureaucracy that seems to them to be intransigent and unmoved by their plight. Add the frustration caused by red tape and a bit of paranoia and they see a conspiracy against them to deny them their benefits at a time when they are most in need.
"They try to encourage you not to draw unemployment by making you wait," said Linda Pearson, 35, who was laid off last month from her seasonal job preparing food at Howard University's food service. "But I'll stay here all day to get my money -- and it is my money."
Some of the unemployed, especially the first-timers and those laid off from white collar or professional jobs, are shy about showing up to claim benefits. To others, many of whom have been through periods of joblessness before, unemployment compensation is a right, not a privilege. Most agree that the maximum $190 weekly compensation is barely enough to make ends meet.
All of them said they would rather be working, which is why they resent the image of unemployed persons as freeloaders. "I'm used to working," said Ezell. "This is a last resort. I never stayed off a job before, except to move from one job to another. People don't believe there are no jobs out here -- they say that there are plenty of jobs. D.C. is tight now for jobs."
The number of jobs in the city has increased by 1,100 this year, compared to a yearly increase of 22,000 new jobs for the region. Most of the new jobs are in construction, which is booming in the suburbs, and in manufacturing, of which the District has little.
On a typical Monday at the Employment Services Building, the unemployed come down to file their claims and wait -- sometimes for hours, sometimes having to return the next day. To help him pass the time, Burnettee Lester brought his J.C. Penney box: a battery-operated combination portable television set, cassette tape player and AM-FM radio.
"I signed up in December and they told me to come back in six weeks," said Lester, a D.C. resident whose last construction job was in Maryland and who had trouble getting his unemployed status approved in the District.
"They haven't sent me my money yet. I come back every three weeks or so. It's mine, so I want it. After 13 years (of working) I want what's mine. I just sit here and wait for them to call my name," he said.
Some of the unemployed, like laid-off Holiday Inn cook John Thomas, keep looking for jobs, and want to collect unemployment to help them pay their bills during the search. "If you got a family to feed, you got to do something," he said.
Others, however, have decided that and the small number of openings for nonprofessional jobs means that their chances of ever working here again are slim.
"People can't work here in the District," Pearson said. "You have to move out. They say Maryland is better."
"There are not that many openings, except in management, and they say I'm not qualified for that," said micrographic technician Darrell Johnson, who was laid off. "I'm considering getting away from here. Right now, D.C. is too congested, Ronald Reagan is acting like a fool, and too many people are losing their jobs."
Johnson said his company, Raven Systems and Research, Inc. in Washington, had stayed profitable with a hefty contract from the Environmental Protection Agency. "Reagan cut down, so EPA cut its contracts, and now I'm laid off," he said. "Reagan is a millionaire 40 times over. What does he care about a person trying to make ends meet. He's set for his life."
Vaughn, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, said: "The problem now in Washington for me is continuing to be told I'm overqualified for positions. The consulting and research positions I am qualified for are not availiable -- they're not hiring, in effect. It's just incredible. With all the consulting firms and associations, I never believed it would be this hard to find a job. The sad thing is it doesn't look like its going to get any better."