Two years ago, Candace Suggs was the young vice president of a consulting firm in Falls Church, Engineering and Economics Research. She was riding high, she thought at the time, buying clothes she had once thought she could never afford and kicking off her expensive high heels in a suburban three-bedroom apartment that was hers alone.
Then came federal budget cutbacks. Under the Reagan administration, the federal agencies Suggs depended upon for her livelihood, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, had less need for her work. Her contracts for employment and training studies disappeared. She found herself joining the mushrooming legions of the nation's jobless.
Today her world turns uneasily on soaring unemployment figures. As the unemployment rate registered 9 percent in February nationally, it hit 6.1 percent in metropolitan Washington: 102,900 jobless of a workforce of 1.67 million people--the highest since the city began keeping such statistics 12 years ago.
In the city itself, 30,700 persons were out of work in February, an unemployment rate of 10 percent, the highest since last July. In suburban Washington, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services, almost 20,000 more people were unemployed than a year ago. The combined jobless rate in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs climbed to 5.3 percent in February, compared to 3.9 percent at the same time a year ago.
In a region that was supposed to be recession-proof, there seems to be little protection from the harsh economic realities of the times.
Suggs, 28, now freelances her consulting work where she can, and finds herself dangerously near financial ruin. Most of her income these days is earned as a temporary office manager in a downtown office building--typing and filing and feeling wasted.
"It's a high-level frustration to have gone so far and done so much to get my credentials," she said, noting her degrees in political science and business adminsitration and an almost completed masters degree. "It's a sense of anguish and frustration."
Suggs and others like her who are having to start all over again in typing pools and behind reception desks are in a sense the lucky ones. The unlucky have become ciphers in the grim litany of statistics.
Yesterday a 52-year-old man with a light spray of gray hair at his temples sat hunched over papers he was filling out feverishly.
A day before he had been a sales director for a firm that arranged worldwide hotel accomodations for conventions and other business gatherings. On this day, he was just another jobless person in the D.C. Employment Services center at 10th and U streets NW, the only person among his jobless peers wearing a white shirt and coat and tie.
He was uneasy, seldom looking up from his papers as he scribbled out the chronicle of his life's work. He told a reporter that he had been in the hotel business for nine years, and did not want his name used. He has a family in the Virginia suburbs. His wife is unemployed also.
"I feel like this applying for unemployment benefits is something I have to do," he said, not really wanting to talk. "Almost everybody has to do this sometime in their life. If you do it right away, get it started, the faster you get out of the situation you're in--getting a job, basically."
More words on paper, and then, as if an afterthought, he adds: "It really crushes you, coming down here."
The D.C. Department of Employment Services reports that more white-collar professionals are taking their places in the unemployment lines. Among these new jobless workers, officials say federal government workers were particularly hard hit.
"The biggest change in the type of job affected over the year was in government," said D.C. Employment Services Economist James Cooper. He said, comparing February's figures with those of last year, that 20,800 people lost their government jobs in the area, even though the total number of jobs available in local governments increased.
A department spokesman said federal workers collected almost $439,000 more in unemployment benefits this February than last February, bringing the month's total payments to $1.454 million in the Washington area.
"It's an employer's market," said Coit Lawrence, a consultant for Betty Gray Personnel. "They are asking for the moon and getting it too. You have to be a bargain. You have to convince them that you are a deal they can't pass up, otherwise, they will."
Ruth Arens, president of Betty Gray Personnel, said she's been in Washington matching people with work for 23 years, but finds today the worst of times. "I've never seen the market this tight."
Peter Gray, 22, believes her. For Gray, each morning offers more of the same: He awakes early, washes the night's uneasy sleep from his soft-featured face, dons his gold-rimmed glasses and begins a ritual of frustration.
Gray thought his communications degree from New York University, exceptional job skills, (including his ability to speak both Japanese and German) and pleasing appearance would be enough to inoculate him against the deepening national plague of unemployment. They have not.
I'm greeted as if I was an unskilled person," he said with a tinge of resentment beginning to cut a jagged edge in his otherwise calm tone. "If I couldn't type, I wouldn't get in for an interview .
"It really does a lot of damage to your self esteem," he said yesterday from his parents' Herndon home.
"People tell you it's not your fault. But you get a sneaking suspicion that develops into paranoia that people think: 'He doesn't have a job because he isn't looking hard enough, he's not hustling, he has no job hunting strategy.'"
Every day he studies the classified ads, the same gray pages President Reagan used as evidence last year that there were jobs to be had. Gray inquires, only to find that the jobs are already filled. Often he discovers that employers are not interested in what he has to offer, or fear he offers more than the job would require.
He checks with the three employment agencies he's on file with. He reads books on job searching, makes elaborate lists of prospective employers. And he thinks back to when he was working last year as a field producer for a Japanese television station based in New York City.
"One thing this has done for me," Gray says, "it has given me a heck of a lot of sympathy for the mother on welfare, the disabled, the underdog.
"To stand 9 to 10 hours in an unemployment line to file some correction on your claim, then wait two months for a $100 unemployment check . . . . It gives you understanding."
He said for people who thought they did what society called upon them to do--seek an education, follow its rules, conform to its standards--being unable to find a job is a stinging realization of uselessness.
"I see I don't have a right to a job," Gray said, slowly. "I see I don't have a right to anything."