For ten months, Monica Ennels walked five blocks from her Northwest home, caught a bus, two trains and another bus, then walked a mile to reach her job in Fairfax.
"I got up about 4:30 a.m. My son left for day care at 5:30. I left home at 6 a.m. and got there just in time to rush in and punch the clock before 8," said Ennels, 22, who lives on Levis Street NW and is the mother of a 4-year-old son.
While blue-collar and service industry employers in Northern Virginia complain of the worst labor shortage in recent memory and import workers from as far away as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, residents in the District -- where unemployment is high -- cite poor public transportation and alleged racism in Virginia as major reasons for preferring jobs in the city.
"Virginia is still a hick little town. You don't want to get caught in Virginia after dark if you're black," said Thaddeus Jeffries, 28, who has a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and "100 applications out, but not one in Virginia."
"I'd go to look at a Virginia job, if I was sent on an interview, but I always request jobs in the District," said Jeffries, who was recently checking job listings at the Cardozo-Shaw branch of the city's Employment Services Center, at 1000 U St. NW.
The five branches of the city's employment office, where hundreds of unemployed people go daily, seem likely places for Virginia companies to list job vacancies, but few of them do so, according to Matthew F. Shannon, director of Employment Services.
"We do get an opportunity to participate in the hard-to-fill jobs," he said. "When the Virginia Employment Services can't fill jobs, they come to us. These are generally the lowest paying jobs, and generally the ones inaccessible by public transportation."
About four years ago, the Virginia Employment Commission pulled out of a metropolitan job bank system that allowed it to conveniently exchange information with Maryland and the District, according to William Haltigan, regional administrator of the U.S. Labor Department's Employment Training Administration.
Under the regional job bank system, "There was a single bank maintained by the District that served the District, Maryland and Virginia," Haltigan recalled. "The District kept a data bank in computers that was made available to the three jurisdictions.
"The Virginia people felt, based upon advice and reaction from some employers, that the system wasn't serving Virginia well," Haltigan said. "Another factor . . . was that the country was pretty much in the depths of a recession at the time and there weren't allegations of great unmet demands in Fairfax, as there are now."
Now, 3,000 to 5,000 Northern Virginia jobs are listed with the Virginia Employment Commission, and "help wanted" signs are fixtures in the windows of many businesses. Officials from the District and Virginia vowed recently to pool their efforts and ease Virginia's labor shortage while reducing the District's unemployment rate, which stands at 8.1 percent, with 26,000 residents out of work.
"One can only guess as to whether or not a joint job bank would help now," said Wesley Caison, Northern Virginia manager for the state's employment commission. "It didn't make a difference before," he said. "We advertise our jobs . . . . I don't know where unemployed people go to get information on jobs, but . . . they don't think of us."
"Under the regional bank, when jobs were listed we had an opportunity to tell D.C. residents . . . ," said Shannon. "Even now, if we could get a Virginia company to identify a large group of jobs -- say, 25 to 50 from a Virginia company -- we . . . could screen people and have a ready pool of workers waiting at our office for an interviewer."
While officials from the two jurisdictions bicker over what formal action to take, they face the problems of transporting across the Potomac River many city residents who need jobs but don't have cars. Besides the physical barrier, District residents encounter the psychological obstacle of what they perceive as widespread feelings that Virginia is a place where whites have negative attitudes toward blacks.
"For a lot of people, the low pay they'd get on most of these jobs is not worth the aggravation," said a 39-year-old laborer and black District resident who has worked for Fairfax County more than five years.
"The whole place is like a slave state," said a mother of four, who asked not to be named. "Bosses speak to blacks like they're third-class citizens. They still say 'nigger' and 'boy.'
"People from the District aren't used to that, particularly young people," she said. "I have more patience, and four children to take care of, but it's still hard."
"The bottom line is, people will take a job if they can get to it," said Jeffries. "I can take you to my street and point to 100 unemployed people. If you told them there was a van coming to take people to work in Virginia, they'd say, 'Where's the van?' "
Officials at Davco Food Inc., which owns the Wendy's franchises in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District, would agree. They solved their labor shortage six months ago by starting a program in which the company pays the public transportation costs for District residents who work in Northern Virginia.
"We go downtown and hire people and match them with stores on the bus or subway line in Virginia," said Steve Stacharowski, director of personnel. "We buy their transportation passes . . . . It's not a cheap program, but it's been pretty successful for everyone.
"We've noticed that the people we hire from the District want to work and tend to be very good employes," Stacharowski said. "We've studied the program and found that there's a lower turnover rate among these people than among those hired locally."
Currently, the District government offers no transportation assistance to job applicants interested in jobs in Virginia. In March, the city hired Ira Lampkin to start the "DC Ridership" program, a service to match District commuters with car and van pools.
The program, which Lampkin said will begin accepting applicants later this summer, also will study "reverse commuting, from the District to the suburbs." Fairfax and Montgomey counties already have similar programs, but Lampkin said that in the past District residents used the Metropolitan Council of Governments car pool service.
Meanwhile, Monica Ennels can testify to the difficulty of getting from the District to a job in Virginia. In her job as an electronics assembler at NEC-America, she grossed about $800 a month and spent more than $100 a month for transportation.
"The worst part was, I didn't get home until 7 in the evening, and the day-care center that kept my son closed at 5," Ennels said. "Sometimes a relative would be at home to get him, but . . . it cost me $10 per hour for each extra hour he stayed. I was paying $20 a day sometimes.
"I never knew what each day would bring. If I missed one bus, it threw me a half hour or an hour off schedule -- either late for work or late for home. I could never establish a routine. I was worrying myself to death. I had to quit the job."