His declining fortunes had taken him from a job as a top executive of a food company to a standing appointment every second Wednesday in the fluorescent twilight of the D.C. unemployment office. Like many people standing in line with him, he was shy about being identified. Don't use the whole name, he asked, "just H. Brown."
Brown, who is 31, the son of a diplomat, separated from his wife, well educated and a ski enthuslast, is among the growing number of white-collar unemployed who mingle with seasonal laborers and other lower-income jobless in the unemployment lines here.
In an upstairs office of the building at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, numbers in a huge book of computer printouts show that those who had been working in professional technical or management positions totaled 19 per cent of the recipients of unemployment payments here this past February.
In the huge public office downstairs, the numbers are made flesh. It is there that the moving stream of unemployed come eyeball to eyeball with government clerks, and their meeting often strains both the people and the system.
Brown, for example, was shocked that he and other unemployment insurance claimants had to wait for hours in long lines in the barn-like room with no chairs. He was unhappy about the confusion and red tape and the "insensitivity of the system."
"The attitude of management in this office," he said, "seems to be: 'Oh, you're unemployed? Then we can waste your time.'"
On the other side of the counter, a civil servant about the same age as Brown, who faces the lines that snake through day in and day out, said he, too, would like to improve the system. This man, a claims deputy in the unemployment office, asked that he not be identified by name at all, lest he be forced into the line of unemployed.
"The running joke around here," the claims deputy said, "is that the people who work in this office are so dissatisfied that they are looking for jobs more energetically than the people in the lines . . ."
As a claims deputy - only a GS-9 - be has to decide, sometimes on the basis of sheer intuition, whether the applicants he interviews are eligible for unemployment payments, and how much they should receive.
There is no chance for him to advance, he said. If he and his coworkers want to advance beyond GS-9 (roughly $14,000 to $18,000 salary) they must find work at some other federal agency, his supervisors said.
Another source of resentment among some of the federal employees who serve the unemployed here is the fact that the District of Columbia is one of the most liberal jurisdictions in the nation in the amounts of money it pays and who it pays.
The $148 a week in benefits that many unemployment compensation claimants receive here is more than the take-home pay of some of the clerks in the unemployment office who fill out their forms, officials said.
Some of the unemployed here have voluntarily left "nice jobs, jobs on the (Capitol) Hill, better than our jobs," one clerk said. They are often women who had "baby sitter problems," he said, or people who simply wanted to look for a "better job than the one they had."
The District's maximum unemployment benefit of $148 a week compares with $103 in Virginia and $89 in Maryland, officials said.
The average claimant here collects benefits for about 26 weeks, according to Rudolph F. Richardson, assistant director of the office of research statistics of the District Unemployment Compensation Board (DUCB), which administrates the program.
The District also pays virtually anyone who is out of work, including - after a waiting period of up to 10 weeks - those who have quit their jobs voluntarily.
"In the District, you could walk in and murder your supervisor and then if you get out on bail, you're free to walk in here and collect your benefits after the required delay period," said the claims deputy. "There is no permanent disqualification of anybody, and this is a source of some resentment."
The result of all this, plus increases in the workload over the years, is that "we've had about 200 per cent turn-over in our staff in the last two years," according to Lawrence Stacey, deputy director for unemployment benefits operations here. "Deputies who had been with us since the 1940s retired, and now our most experienced deputies have just a year or so experience."
What unemployment compensation applicants sometimes see as an impolite or superior attitude on the part of government workers toward them is explainable, in part, by the nature of the job, one claims deputy said. "You are supposed to be constantly aware of the possibility of fraud - someone, for instance, who says he's actively looking for work but isn't. You point yourself toward catching it and your attitude toward everyone becomes questioning. You have to guard against being too suspicious or pessimistic.
"People are not usually in the best disposition when they talk to us anyway, and sometimes they think they're being penalized for things that aren't their fault."
If claimant is sick for a week and therefore not available for work as required, for example, he doesn't get his check for the week, the claims deputy said.
"Others just take it all in stride," he added. "They've been in and out of unemployment lines so long that it's part of their life-style and they know how to walk through the system."
Some of the employees in the unemployment office here are themselves veterans of unemployment lines. "I was there as an out-of work teacher," said a clerk. "A lot of us have teaching certifiactes, but can't get teaching jobs."
While the clerks commented wryly about the high benefits paid here, they said they are also aware the payments are "a kind of insurance, not welfare," and that many people in line would much rather be earning their income another way.(Unemployment benefits are paid out of a government fund to which most employers are required by law to contribute on behalf of their employees.)
"From what you see in here day after day," a claims deputy said, "you realize you would never want to do that (collect unemployment benefits) for very long."
On one recent day, security guards had to restrain a man who had picked up a heavy metal stanchion and tried to hit an assistant manager over the head with it.
"He was at the bottom of his luck and he wanted to take it out on somebody," said Hazel Davis, a supervisor in the claims deputy section. "We wish we didn't need the guards, but we do."
In one long line, there was a young woman who had a clerical job but said she is now "planning to go back to school for a while," an elderly woman who was forced because of her age to retire from a secretarial career and now is working at temporary jobs and collecting unemployment in between, and a young woman who had worked on Capitol Hill and is now in line with her husband (employed) and their baby.
Many came prepared, carrying paperback novels or newspapers to read in the lines, where they said the wait can take hours on a bad day. D.C. law requires them to come every two weeks to indicate that they are able to work and are actively looking for a job. In some other jurisdictions, this can be done by mail.
"Some of the people who come in here nowadays have made a tremendous amount of money, so much that they blow our computer calculations," Stacey said, "One man had made $90,000 in his base period (the one-year period on which the benefit amount is determined)."
Though the unemployed often have little in common except their unemployment, there is a collective rhythm in the surge of the lines. "Rainy days and Fridays are usually light days for the lines," according to Stacey. "Mondays are usually heavy because that's a day when people want issues resolved, they want to get their money. Also, Friday is the day an employer lays off and those people will come in on Monday."
Stacey said the lines will lessen a bit with the coming of spring, when construction jobs open up."But then there will be an increase when the school crossing guards and cafeteria workers come in," he added.
Since 1975, when the recession drove unemployment rates to a nationwide peak, the District office has borrowed $49.4 million from the federal government to maintain the required level of unemployment insurance funds, according to William V. Wilkerson, director of the board. He said his office expects to be able to stop borrowing after this month.
Fraud has fluctuated along with unemployment claims, Wilkerson said, "but it has constituted less than 1 per cent of the total amount we pay out and much of that has been recovered."
Benefits and rules for unemployment compensation vary from state to state, so in this area those who go to another jurisdiction's office, like the one in Falls Church, might find no lines, no parking problems, a different mix of people and a different set of problems.
Newspaper headlines have said the job picture is improving. But a seasoned clerk at the local unemployment office observed, "unemployment is 8 per cent, unless you're the one who's unemployed. Then it's 100 per cent."