It was 10 in the morning and Art Truman, out of a job for the last 10 months, already had been waiting at the unemployment office for three hours. He had arrived at the new Merrifield branch of the Virginia Employment Commission at 7:15 a.m., 45 minutes before opening, and he was number 29 in a line of more than 200 that snaked around the corner.
Truman, 33, an engineering consultant who speaks French and Spanish and once made $30,000 a year, was sitting in a hard wooden chair.
In his lap was a copy of "Guerrilla Tactics in the Job Market." On his mind was the waiting game.
Last Thursday, he waited two hours at Merrifield just to schedule an appointment. On Sept. 23, he waited six hours to have a form processed. On Sept. 16 he waited four hours to find out if he was eligible for further compensentation. All this for $138 a week.
"What they give you amounts to movie money compared to what I used to make," said Truman, wiping his John Lennon wire rim glasses on his shirt. "But, you know, you're out of work for 10 months and things get tight. It's bad enough being on the dole, but it seems like they make you wait here to demean you into finding a job."
Merrifield was opened in late August, after a tightening of federal and state funds forced Virginia employment officials to close and consolidate their Falls Church and Alexandria bureaus at Merrifield, on Lee Highway near the Capital Beltway. Today, it is the only such office in Northern Virginia, and is expected to handle 30,000 claims this year. The closest unemployment offices are at least 50 miles away; Fredericksburg to the south, Winchester to the west or Culpeper to the southwest.
Since its opening, Merrifield has been crowded constantly. But this week, said Merrifield supervisor David G. Moates, "all hell broke loose. I don't know why. I haven't had time to think about it."
In Northern Virginia 4.4 percent of the region's work force, or 27,200 people, are unemployed, according to the latest figures. The state level is 7.3 percent, or 191,900 people. The U.S. Labor Department reported yesterday that a near record 4.6 million people across the country received state unemployment checks in the week ending Oct. 2, the second highest number since the program began in 1937.
This week, Merrifield, staffed by 50 employes, has been staying open five additional hours each night. To save time, groups of 35 claimants have been interviewed at once. "When they are just filling out their Virginia claim form, we can get them through in 26 minutes flat," said Moates, who came to work for the Employment Commission nine years ago, after being laid off from his job with a building supply firm.
Even so, only 200 claimants a day are processed. By 9:30 a.m. yesterday, the 200th had been counted and was waiting. All others were turned away. The lucky ones stared straight ahead, flicked cigarette ashes on the new brown industrial carpet, combed their hair, ate snacks from paper bags.
Sue Wittman, sitting near Truman, embroidered little angels onto a piece of material that eventually will be a pillow. She had already finished a koala bear. By now it was 11:41 a.m., and they hadn't gotten to No. 29 yet. Sue Wittman was No. 51, glad to have any number at all.
She had come at 10 a.m. on Monday and was turned away. She had returned Wednesday at 9 a.m. and was turned away. Yesterday, she arrived at 7:30. It was bitter cold outside in line, but she got a number.
In her purse she carried a piece of Marriott Hotels stationery on which she had written the symptoms of "joblessness," as documented in a Time magazine essay in January l982, a month after she was laid off from her job as an accounts secretary with a McLean computer firm.
The symptoms included: "Sharp loss of self esteem. Diminished sense of identity. Certain murkiness of purpose."
"I read this every once in a while to keep myself up," said Wittman, 37 and a single parent of an Annandale High School senior. She has worked as an interior designer and as a Fairfax County child abuse investigator. Now she collects $117 a week in unemployment benefits. She gets federal assistance to help pay her rent.
"I'm loosing my kid's respect," she said. "My friends think I'm lazy. Here I am, I'm skilled, I put myself through college. I can't find a job. I'm going to work at the polls on election day, though. They pay $55. How low can you go?"
Hearing this, Art Truman perked up. "They pay $55?" he asked. "How did you sign up?"