During 14 years as an employe of Arlington-Fairfax Savings & Loan, Michael Pierson made steady progress up the career ladder, rising from teller to vice president. He had no reason to worry about job security.
Then last November, a few months after his bank merged with another in a move to contain costs and remain competitive, the 41-year-old father of two was laid off. The shock of the experience was something he will not forget.
"It's like having a death in the family, like finding out you are terminally ill. It's absolutely shattering," said Pierson. "It took a period of time for me to become emotionally stable. The hardest thing was to tell my children."
There are many ways of losing a job. Sometimes, as with Pierson, it happens suddenly, dashing long-held hopes and expectations. Sometimes, if you're used to having your work tied to the fluctuations of the economy, you can see it coming. And sometimes it just seems a fact of life, one more setback in a series of defeats.
In the last year and a half, people in the Washington area have become familiar with all those experiences and the pain that accompanies them. Government executive, union carpenter, unskilled worker--all have felt the most direct and damaging impact of hard times, the loss of a livelihood.
When unemployment was at its peak of 6.4 percent in the metropolitan area last July, 111,564 people were out of work. For all of last year, the unemployment rate averaged 6 percent--the highest rate since 1967, when officials started keeping local data in some organized way and--according to some officials--the highest since the Great Depression.
The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia last year all recorded the highest annual unemployment rates since they began keeping records. The District had 10.7 percent unemployment; Maryland had 8.4 percent and Virginia 7.7 percent.
While Washington and its suburbs have not felt the devastating double-digit unemployment of industrial states such as Michigan, and their service-oriented economies weathered the recession better than most, virtually every segment of the population has felt the impact of this recesssion.
The Washington area was hit hardest of any in the country by federal government reductions in force that cut 18,400 jobs, most of them white collar. With building sharply curtailed, 11,500 construction jobs vanished between November 1980 and November 1982.
And for black teen-agers in the District of Columbia, who in 1981 had the highest unemployment rate of any part of the population--37 percent--a bleak situation only got bleaker.
"I can say that I do expect given the economic conditions that teen-age unemployment will be higher, possibly as high as 40 percent," said James Cooper, a labor economist at the District's Office of Employment Services.
For many of the newly unemployed professionals, the psychological impact is worse than the financial. "I'm from New England," said Gary S. McLaughlin, a health consultant who lost his job with a Bethesda firm more than a year ago, "and it's a family blight if you are unemployed. Intellectually we know we're in the worst downslide we've ever been in, but we've been led to believe and understand and know that only the slovenly, the lazy, the 'can't do' and 'won't do' are the unemployed. They are the social lepers."
The unemployed who lost big salaries and job titles are often "as unprepared to search for a job as teen-agers are," according to the Urban League's employment director, Michael Bell.
"At first, they don't realize that they cannot get the same salary" in a new job, he said. "This is particularly true for people in the social services. A lot of the skills they have in government jobs do not apply to private businesses."
Discouraged and frustrated by repeated rejections, the job-seeker has to fight the tendency to isolate himself from family and friends.
"You don't know what to do . . . you don't do anything, you're afraid to pick up the phone, afraid to go out of the house," said Bill Shumann, 43, of McLean, who lost his speechwriter's job last April.
There is also the bittersweet experience of learning whom one's real friends are--"the only gratifying part" of being unemployed, according to Shumann.
But the overall effect of months without working is disillusionment. On a cold December day in the Northeast Washington hiring hall of Building Laborers Local 74, it was almost tangible.
"They're ruining the young men right now, they're breaking souls," said Howard Davis, one of a half dozen men gathered there to wait for work. The others nodded in agreement.