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The Daily Grind Of The Laid-Off (Still Waiting)

Like any workplace, this room has its pecking order, its wise veterans, its newly arrived go-getters. In this room, the work is waiting. An official notice gets posted on the bulletin board, and the newcomers rush over. Before they can even read the posting, an old-timer calls over: "Forget it -- it's not for you."

No, it's not. The nine men who had scurried over to see that announcement -- an opening for an emergency planner at the Virginia Department of Health, college degree required -- drift back to their places along the wall. They resume waiting.

Only six jobs get posted on the board at the Alexandria office of the Virginia Employment Commission on this day -- six potential positions and 77 people crammed into two small rooms, waiting.

They wait to be seen, wait to clear up paperwork, wait for benefits, wait for a turn at a computer terminal (though, truth be told, 16 of the 19 people at those machines are checking their e-mail or reading the news, because they can't stand another minute of searching for jobs that don't exist). People chat in Arabic, Amharic, Korean, Spanish, Chinese and English. They all speak in one tongue: the language of the unemployed.

"I loved my job," says Barbara Goddard, who had worked for the sports retailer Eddie Bauer for 11 years. Her store, at Reston Town Center, lost its lease, and she was out. "That was my second family there. It's not easy when you get to be 65. I'm not ready to be retired. I like to talk to people and get to know them, to help them. This is killing me."

People like Goddard no longer have a place to go each day. They don't sleep because they're not spending energy, or because they're worried, or because their clocks are wacky from staying up half the night on the computer. They watch too much TV. They avoid going out with friends; they don't have the money. They go stir-crazy at home. Mainly, they wait.

"I spend ridiculous numbers of hours on the computer looking for jobs," says Sarah Woody, 28, a copy editor who was laid off from a public relations firm in Arlington County, then did part-time work proofreading video game reviews and now scouts around for gigs rather than jobs -- short-term stints she finds on Craigslist, such as helping an elderly neighbor go through her files.

She spends a lot of her time adjusting expectations, always downward. "I'll enter data. I'll format Word documents. I don't care," she says. If she can get her unemployment payments cleared, she'll collect one-third of what she made before, enough for the rent, nothing else. Soon enough, she knows, she'll have to head home to live with her parents in Indiana, where her father, who's in construction, is getting unemployment, too.

At one computer, a man from Ethiopia drafts a letter to a federal contractor: "Since I last wrote you, I have acquired 'secret' clearance, which will make me much more valuable and useful to you. . . ."

At the next cubicle, a woman from Peru types: "I am a people person. . . ."

Across the river, at the District's One-Stop Career Center on Franklin Street NE, eight people are on the computers. Two are on Yahoo! Games, three are checking e-mail, one is writing a letter to an employer, one is reading the news from Nigeria, and one is deep into March Madness. Twenty-six other people sit in chairs, waiting.

Teonna McBride and Keisha Harrison are here together, just as they were laid off from the same clinic as medical assistants. "They said people were losing their jobs and losing their medical insurance, so they had less money coming in, so they had to let us go," says McBride, 25, who spent a year in a vocational college to gain the skills to work in a field that was supposed to be recession-proof. After all, everybody falls ill, right?

"What'd we do that for if we can't get a job?" she asks now. It's been two months, and her little boys still don't know. She's home more, home all the time. "You go for walks, go to the playground, go on a picnic, anything so you don't be depressed."

This was Harrison's first real job, her first layoff, too. She's 22, owes $8,000 on her education, and she's realizing how expensive it is just to look for a job -- gas, bus fares, faxing, mailing, even clothes.

"On the job, we're used to wearing scrubs, and jeans on the weekend," McBride says. "Now you have to buy clothes for interviews."

Harrison reluctantly scrapped her Internet service. McBride dropped cable. "Turn the radio on -- that's free," she says.

"You do what you have to do," McBride says. "Your friends want to go out to eat, but you can't. So you have to motivate yourself: This is my plan for this week."

"It's going to get better," Harrison says. "It's just a waiting process."

In Alexandria, a posting goes up on the board: parking assistant, $10 an hour, no benefits. Ten men cluster around the board, scribble down the details, whip out their phones.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.

By Marc Fisher |  March 19, 2009; 9:08 AM ET
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