Among the crowd of luckless souls waiting for help at the Prince George's County unemployment office, a burly man named Barry Van Demark seemed to be the most composed. As impatient sighs and mumbles buzzed throughout the room one recent morning, Van Demark stayed cool, his arms folded across his chest and his round face a portrait of calm.
He was, he explained, a veteran of the jobless wars. Without work for 26 weeks, nothing fazed him anymore. Since being laid off his forklifting job, the 39-year-old Beltsville native said he has applied for work and been rejected at scores of warehouses from Annapolis to rural Virginia. Early on, he suffered through long periods of anger and blues, but these days, he said, he mostly feels the numbness and apathy that come from prolonged acquaintance with frustration.
"You just get so damn tired of people saying 'we'll call you,' " he said.
After collecting a weekly $140 check from the unemployment office for 26 weeks--less than half the amount he earned while working--Van Demark is entitled to a 13-week extension of benefits while he continues to search for a job. But that extension was jeopardized when the federal government abruptly cut the extension effective July 31, claiming that unemployment levels in the state had dropped to a point where the extension no longer was considered necessary.
"It's all a goddamn joke," Van Demark said, his blue eyes scanning the crowd. "Anybody who says 26 weeks is long enough to find a job in this area doesn't know what it's like to go hungry and without work. I'm living with my mother now. Hell, I've had to keep postponing my marriage because I can't support her."
When told Maryland Governor Harry Hughes has called a special session of the state legislature to attempt to come up with funds so there won't be any lapse in benefits, Van Demark merely smiled. "All I can say is that it's a good thing it's an election year," he said. "Otherwise, we'd all be up the creek for good."
Van Demark is one of 11,000 unemployed Marylanders who would be affected by the cutoff. Of those, 724 live in Prince George's County and approximately 400 in Montgomery County.
Among the throng last week at the College Park unemployment office, a branch of the state Employment Security Administration located on Greenbelt Road behind a Shell gas station, news of the proposed cutoff was greeted by blank stares and shrugs of resignation. "I think most people are just plain numb," said Sarah Browne, office manager. "There's a sense that nothing else could go wrong. And when it does, everyone feels powerless to do anything about it."
Staffing at Browne's office has been cut by the federal government, most deeply in the job services program that helps jobless residents locate work. In April, 1981, there were 21 job advisers. Now there are seven. As result, there are longer lines at the office and longer waits for help.
Hundreds of jobless persons travel to the College Park office from all parts of the county to sit in yellow plastic chairs for hours in a dismal waiting room covered from wall to wall with a ragged carpet of green and gold. In the washrooms the graffiti is tough. "The KKK Is Alive And Well," someone had scrawled in the men's room. Beneath those words someone else had written, "So's My Damn Gun."
Under fluorescent lights the people smoke cigarettes, read magazines, scan want ads and box scores, tackle crossword puzzles, knit, stare at posters and signs, trade stories of suffering, yawn, nap, sip sodas and quiet fidgety children. This is a kind of supply-side purgatory they must come to nearly every week they remain unemployed.
They fill out form after form if this is their first visit, and if it's not they come to keep their files up to date. Some interview for jobs, while others demand to know why they failed to receive a check. But mostly they suffer the common indignity of all workless beings--they wait and wait, pondering hopes they've put on hold.
"I came here at 8 this morning. I was number 63 on the list," one plump woman said, looking at her wristwatch which said half past 10.
"You're lucky," a man next to her responded. "Two months ago I was here one day and I waited five hours just to find out what happened to my check. It's worse than trying to get into the White House, I swear."
"It's a rat race and I'm not winning," said Jim Phillips, a bearded Beltsville auto mechanic, as he lit a Lucky Strike. "Used to work at a British car shop. Laid me off six months ago. Ain't no mechanic jobs out here, man. Fifty guys ahead of you when you apply for work. When they cut my extension out, I'm done. I got a wife and rent to pay, and the landlady don't want to hear no alibis."
Listening from a seat nearby was Robert Walden, a 21-year-old redhaired car salesman holding his seven-month-old son David. This was his first visit to the front lines, after leaving his job the week before. "Twenty-six weeks really isn't a whole lot of time, you know," he said, cradling the infant against his chest. "You look around and see so many people who've been out of it so long. I think I'll be able to line up something, but what if I don't? It doesn't seem fair."
James Hardin, a 29-year-old heavy-equipment operator from Riverdale, was on the other side of the room, listlessly staring at nothing but a blank pillar, a baseball cap atop his blond hair, his hands folded across his lap. He seemed proficient at the waiting game. "Yeah, I'm on extended benefits," he replied to a questioner. "Twenty-eight weeks I've been out. I've gone everywhere looking for something, anything to do. Got one child and another on the way. I'm getting $140 a week in unemployment. I went into an apprentice program in plumbing. Lot of good that did. Still didn't get a job. So me and my wife, we were kind of desperate. We both went over to District Photo looking for jobs. She got the job and I didn't. She's pregnant and working part time and I'm still out."
The newcomers appeared to be the most quick-tempered, mumbling oaths during the wait and getting up at intervals to stretch their legs and complain to caseworkers. "Is it always this bad?" a young woman in a pink shirt asked a middle-aged man sitting next to her. Looking up from a Time magazine, the man smiled, then replied, "You'll get used to it."
"Jeez," the young woman went on, "the amount of time we spend here, we could be out on the streets looking for work." Her neighbors nodded their heads knowingly.
Against a wall, 20-year-old Barbara Tall was filling out a stack of computer cards and unemployment insurance forms. She was a neophyte, and retained a certain optimism about job prospects. The Laurel woman, laid off recently from her job as a parts driver at a Silver Spring car dealership, insisted she would find something in a matter of weeks. "Twenty-six weeks is plenty long enough to find something, man. Jobs are out there. It's just a matter of hunting," she said, admitting in an aside that her mother, on the Maryland Eastern Shore, remains out of a job despite looking for work for some time.
Of all of those waiting, Walter Holowchak seemed the most confident and sure. A thin man with black furry eyebrows, wavy silver hair and black horn-rim bifocals, Holowchak sat on the far edge of the room, listing all the places he had traveled to apply for work during the previous week, as required by employment security officials. Laid off seven months ago from a hardware store where he worked as a merchandise manager at $4.50 an hour, the 54-year-old Laurel man listed six places in rapid succession, from a hardware store in Columbia, Md., to a department store in Ellicott City. He's on extended benefits now, he said, and he knows they're due to run out shortly, but he insisted he was the luckiest man around.
"My four kids are grown up and I'm reasonably healthy," he said. "I know I'm getting kinda old to be on the job market and there aren't a lot of people willing to hire me, but at least I only have to worry about myself."
"But what are you gonna do when the checks stop coming?" the woman in the pink shirt asked.
"Well," he replied, adjusting the hearing aid in his right ear, "I got a plan. I've spent most of my life here, raising a family and what have you, but I've never really been the kind of guy who has his feet planted in one place. I'm divorced now, the kids are gone, so there's nothing really keeping me. I can probably pay the rent one more time, then I'll put everything up for sale--color TV, furniture, electric can opener, the whole shebang. Figure I can get some money for it. Then I'll probably go out west to California. I loved that place when I was in the Navy."
Holowchak's neighbors in the waiting room glanced at him with a mixture of admiration and surprise. Special session of the state legislature or no, 13-week extension or no, he seemed determined to hit the road. "I think my time's run out here," he said. "I've been to 30, 40 places looking for jobs, but there just doesn't seem to be anything. Maybe out west my luck'll change."
With that, Holowchak handed in the completed form. Politely sidestepping chairs and folded legs, he wound his way through the dozing crowd. Then he disappeared through the glass doors into the morning smog and steam just as a young man with tattoos on his arms and a blue bandana around his head trudged into the office to take a place in line.