On the morning she would try to change her circumstances, Donna Maria Osborne did everything she thought she was supposed to. She woke up early, lifting herself off her sister’s couch, where a permanent indentation was starting to form in the cushions. She said her prayers, making sure to say “thank you” before asking, again, for what she wanted most. She dressed in a black suit, paid $2 to ride the bus and arrived at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at 8:30 a.m. The job fair started at 10.
“Am I in the right place?” she asked a security guard, looking for what she thought would be a long line of people who wanted to work.
“First one here,” he said, and so Osborne started the line and waited. She scoped out a list of employers who were expected to show up, highlighting the ones with potential and crossing out all the places she had already applied.
On her right, a TV was showing CNN. The anchors were going on about the stock market, something Osborne, who is 59, had never chosen to give much of her attention to. On this morning, the Dow Jones industrial average was about to set a record high. It was another sign of the moment the country’s economy was in. President Trump had been boasting about it all week: The stock market was up. The job market was growing. Unemployment was low.
By the numbers, it was a good time to be a job seeker in America. And now, a few hundred of them — black, white and Hispanic; young, old and middle-aged — were lining up behind Osborne, each person hoping that this would be the day when they would no longer be among the 4.3 percent of people in the country who counted as unemployed. She waved to one of them, motioning for him to come cut in line beside her.
“Same old, same old,” her friend Durward Jones said. They had both been here at D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s annual job fair last year, too.
“You never know,” Osborne said.
“You never know,” Jones agreed. “Something good might happen.”
Something good: That would be a full-time job she could count on.
Something really good: Benefits, retirement, consistency.
Something great: Hired today, on the spot.
But if she were honest with herself, she would settle for just something. For two years she had been patching together work from temporary job placement agencies, never earning the $13,000 a year she had when she worked for her church — her last steady job — and not coming close to the $42,000 a year she once made as an administrative assistant. She had no debt, and only herself to support.
But at the moment, her finances amounted to a bus card loaded for the week and $2.50 in change. And that’s why she showed up too early, and accepted a secondhand suit from the associate pastor at Trinity AME Zion Church, and prepared a stack of 20 résumés touting her trustworthiness, initiative and all the volunteer work she’d been doing to remind herself that she still had something to offer.
A sharp-dressed man in his 20s waved to the line. “All right,” he said, and Osborne hurried forward. She and Jones rode an escalator down into the large hall where 113 booths were set up, 113 potential somethings good.
A few steps off the escalator, Osborne clutched her lower back. The ache was so strong, she had to sit down. The other job-seekers rushed past her. She stretched forward, thinking about her $600-a-month room in a Columbia Heights group house she couldn’t afford anymore. She didn’t know how much longer her back could take sleeping on a couch.
Up again. She squinted at the numbers above the booths.
“What’s that? An 81, or 61?” she said.
At the booth for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, she introduced herself.
“Do you know if they have any open customer service positions?” she asked.
“They do,” the representative answered. “It’s a call center type of environment.”
“Right,” Osborne said, nodding to show her enthusiasm and picking up a flier.
“They are looking for a background in call centers,” the representative said. “Billing, and so forth. So if you worked in a doctor’s office or something like that, that’s customer service, but it wouldn’t be on the scale of this call center environment.”
“Oh,” Osborne said. “Okay, thank you.”
She handed back the flier. She had no billing experience. She headed for a booth with a sign that said “40Plus of Greater Washington.”
A gray-haired man greeted her. “We don’t hire,” he said. “We help you get hired.”
Her smile drooped. She already had a résumé. She already learned how to answer “Tell me about a time when you faced a challenge at work” and “What’s your greatest strength and weakness?”
“I mean, I get interviews,” she told the man. “I don’t have a problem with that. But I think it’s my age.”
Ken Schoppmann nodded understandingly. He, too, was unemployed, or “in transition,” as he preferred to call it. 40Plus was just a volunteer opportunity for him, a chance to hand out fliers that said “LinkedIn: It’s Not Social, It’s Business” and “Network! Network! Network!”
The job market, Schoppmann had come to learn, was like the rest of the world: always looking for the new, next thing. He used to be a CEO. Now he was overqualified for most positions. At the job fair, he was meeting the people who were usually underqualified, like Osborne, who doesn’t have a college degree. If she had handed him her résumé, he would have explained to her yet another challenge in her way: the job she had spent most her life doing — administrative assistant — was being replaced by technology. He would have advised her to change her wording to “Operations Specialist.” Instead, she picked up a flier, thanked him, and walked toward the other booths.
“I hope I didn’t make him feel like I wasn’t interested,” she said. “But I just need a job.”
She stopped at a hotel management company, whose representatives told her she’d need to apply online. She thanked them and took a free pen with their logo branded on it. Next, the Library of Congress. Apply online, she was told. The same at Two Roads Hospitality.
How many hours had she already spent hunched over her laptop submitting applications? She had purchased it four years ago, when she was working full-time. She envisioned herself back at it the next morning, entering her information over and over again. Or maybe she would start tonight after she stopped at the assisted-living community on 14th Street to check on her 85-year-old mother.
“What’s FEMA?” she asked the next table. A young man explained FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and this table was for AmeriCorps, which assists FEMA. They were looking for 18-to-24-year-olds.
“Counts me out,” she told him. She said the same to the driving jobs; she had no license. The lifeguarding job; she can’t swim. The police jobs; “Too old,” she said to the officers, while picking up a free water bottle.
“There’s no age limit,” one young woman encouraged her.
“Trust me,” she said. “Old knees, old back.”
Now she was stopping at a table for D.C. Cruises. They needed weekend and holiday workers. She took a pen and a flier.
“Just go to that link,” the employee told her. She promised she would.
“You’re going to remember me, right?” she asked him.
Her friend Durward Jones called to her from down the aisle. He’d been looking for jobs in IT.
“I talked to a Jackson Hewitt lady,” he said. “I’m feeling a little upbeat. A little positive. How about you?”
“Nothing yet,” Osborne said. Jones, who is 56, was good with computers. She didn’t know how to use Microsoft Excel, and that was a problem. She was signed up for a free eight-week Microsoft Office class through the D.C. government. It started in two weeks, and what she worried about most was the cost of getting there. Sometimes members of her church would give her cash to cover bus fare. But she was embarrassed to ask for it outright. Jones suggested she go to the booth for the Department of Employment Services to ask if they knew of any travel stipends.
She waited to speak with the department representative, nodding as he discussed “21st-century job-readiness standards” with a large group. She pulled him aside, explained her situation, and asked if he knew of any organizations that could help. He looked pained.
“No,” he said. “I don’t.” He tried to think of other options for her. Maybe she could find an Excel class online instead? She thanked him again and pulled out a copy of her résumé.
“I’m going to have you send that to me electronically,” he said.
Booth by booth, she looked for her shot at something good. What she got was a water bottle, five hand sanitizers, a towel, two lip balms and six pens, all branded with the names of employers she did not work for — yet. She had 16 fliers listing websites where she could apply.
After nearly two hours, she headed up the escalator with Jones. Her mouth was dry from smiling and asking questions and saying “Okay, thank you.” She dug in her bag for the water bottle, searching beneath the stack of résumés that was nearly as thick as when she arrived.
“This year was more positive,” Jones said.
“This year was good,” she said. She headed out to the bus, paid the fare, and made her way back to her sister’s couch.