At 3:30 a.m. yesterday, long before sunrise, Lorenco Collins, an unemployed food services manager, was the first to arrive and take a place in the doorway of the Petworth Employment Services Center on Kansas Avenue NW. By 5, he had been joined by nearly a dozen other jobless people.
At 7:30 a.m., when the office opened for business, more than 100 people stood in line. Some had come to see D.C. government workers who could register them on the unemployment rolls for the first time. Others were already signed up for benefits, but were having problems getting their checks. Others had come looking for help in finding work.
In less than an hour, employment service workers were informing those who had joined the lines after 8 a.m. that there would probably be no one available to see them, that the day's schedule of appointments was already full, and that they should try again -- tomorrow.
The District of Columbia's rising unemployment rate, which reached a record high of 11.3 percent in June, has put increasing strains on the city's unemployment compensation system. City officials say that they have been hampered by budgetary constraints that have led to personnel cutbacks. However, some in the lines say the city bureaucracy is inefficient.
Whatever the cause, the result -- visible at the city's five employment centers, including the Petworth center -- is a logjam of humanity.
Some residents of the Petworth area said they have already grown accustomed to seeing scores of people--some packing books and lunches, coffee and lawn chairs--gathering in front of the locked doors of the employmemt center every morning. "I think it's terrible," said Gwendolyn Washington, who sees the crowd of jobless each day at 7 when she opens the nearby Kilroy's Dry Cleaners.
"You have to understand what kinds of times we're in," said Matthew F. Shannon, acting director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. Shannon blamed much of the problem on Reagan administration cutbacks in federal monies for labor programs.
He said that in the past year, reductions in federal funds have caused the number of workers who help the unemployed find jobs to decrease by 31 percent, from 156 to 112, and decreased the number of workers who process unemployment claims by 26 percent, from 195 to 147.
"Not only are we in a difficult time of high unemployment, but Reagan has reduced funds . . . There is no federal program set up to help," Shannon said.
Many of the jobless, however, say they are frustrated by the bureaucracy and blame local officials.
"There must be a swifter way to do this," said Lorenco Collins, 26, who said he has been trying to get to see a claims examiner because his unemployment checks are running a month late. Last month, he said, he came at 6 a.m. but was too late. Then he came at 5, but again had no success.
So yesterday, he drove from his Forestville home to claim a spot near the center's door at 3:30 in the morning. This time he made it, but he said he was still irked by what he saw as an uncaring attitude by workers at the center.
"You can see in the way they walk, speak and move that they really don't give a damn," he said. "You never know what to expect." Trying to arrange to fit the center's schedule, he said, is all the more difficult for someone who is also trying to set up job interviews.
Recipients of unemployment benefits are no longer required to appear in person each month to continue getting payments. But they must visit the centers to sign up initially for benefits, to straighten out problems with their checks, or to get help in finding work.
Employment center claim examiners, who in most cases are the only workers in the centers able to make decisions, see an average of eight to 25 people a day, Shannon said. The Petworth center has four examiners but two are currently on vaction, leading to greater delays -- and more frustration -- for clients.
But the bureaucracy's impassive face is not necessarily a reflection of what lies deeper. "I was unemployed once," said one of the center's workers, who asked that her name not be used. "I can relate to them. I know what they are feeling. It's hard to look at human beings who wait for hours to see someone and then have to be told that no one can help you today."
Ronald Richburg, 24, who last worked as a courier, was resigned to the long wait. "It's simple," he said. "If you don't get here early, you don't get anything accomplished. It's a lot like the Army, you hurry up to wait."
After a three-hour wait yesterday, Richburg managed, by 8 a.m., to get a look at what he had come to see -- a listing of jobs for which his counselor believed he was qualified. Most of the jobs called for a mechanic.
Although Michael McClearyCale, 32, said he really wants to work again, he doesn't bother looking at the job listings. "They can't do anything for me. I'm a tax lawyer."
Currently, McClearyCale has a part-time job teaching legal writing at American University while his wife works as a lawyer. He said he came in to inform the government that he has changed his address so his unemployment checks can find him.
He hunkered over a Henry Miller novel, waiting for his turn.