Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

Looking for work — again and again

Jeanne Keen bustled in the door, black blazer over a dress shirt, a file folder with paperwork in her shoulder bag.

If only she were walking into work. Then she would have a paycheck. A way to save her Dundalk rowhouse from foreclosure. A daily outlet for her need to do.

This August morning, 361 days after her last at a paid job, she stopped by home to pick up her 24-year-old son — also looking for work — so they could drive to a job fair together. Her file folder was full of resumes. Some highlighted her accounting experience, some her human resources experience, all of them carefully arranged to draw attention to her skills and not the long slog of unemployment that she and many other Americans struggle to escape.

More than 3 million job searchers nationwide have been out of work for longer than six months, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's a third of all who are jobless — better than at the depth of the Great Recession and in its aftermath, but far higher than at any other time since the agency began tracking such information in 1948.

It would be easy to despair. Keen, who works at thinking positively, smiled as she considered her to-do list for the day. Even if the employment fair proved fruitless, it would give structure beyond solitary online job searches. And she had a glass-blowing class — a birthday gift from her boyfriend — to look forward to that evening.

"An adventuresome day," she declared.

Marc Dyer, her son, couldn't help but see it less optimistically. Before she arrived, he looked up the job fair online and found broken links when he tried to research the openings. With no money to pay his cellphone bill, he worried how an employer would reach him for an interview.

He needed Keen's help so he could make and receive calls again. But she had a car payment due and only a $360-a-week unemployment check as income.

"By the end of next month I will have $60 — I will take care of this like I always have," he told her.

"How are you going to have $60?" she asked.

"I will have a job by the end of next month," Dyer promised. "I don't care if it is the worst job. … I'll just take whatever I can get."

Keen, 53, who figures she's applied for more than 600 jobs since last year, understands that feeling as only the long-unemployed can.

"Once I make my car payment, I'll take care of it," she said.

They both lost stable jobs at welding-wire company Techalloy, which had waves of layoffs before its Baltimore plant closed in March after it was acquired by Lincoln Electric. The Ohio company said it offered everyone jobs in Cleveland, but Keen said they were production jobs and she knew she couldn't physically do that work. Keen's final day was April 30 last year; her son's was in 2012.

Since then, Keen had a single, short-lived job, one she said she was laid off from in August 2013 when the person she replaced decided to return.

Keen and her son walked into the Best Western Plus Hotel in Southeast Baltimore 15 minutes before the employment fair. A line of job seekers already stretched down a long hallway and U-turned back up the other side.

"What's the jobs? Anybody know?" asked a woman queued up near Keen.

"It's a long list," Keen said — cautiously. Her experiences at past job fairs taught her not to expect much.

The advertisement and the reality didn't match up this time, either. "Dozens" of employers were supposed to be there; nine actually were. Some just added people to a list to be — maybe — contacted later. Most of the jobs were sales, and at least one of the "employers" was a school hoping to sign people up for classes.

Job seekers streamed out, disgusted.

"They advertised 30 businesses today and that they were going to have interviews on the spot," said Bruce Gayle, 59, a former schoolteacher from Hampden who'd come on the promise of tech positions. "The only job in there is to sell life insurance."

Gayle and Keen commiserated about facing the job market in their 50s.

Then she said, "Stay positive, get out there, just kick it every day."

"Until you run out of gas and food, and then what do you do?" asked Gayle, who went on to land a job later that month.

Time to fill

If it wasn't for her boyfriend, Keen would be asking herself the same question a lot — along with "Where will I live?"

Instead, she spends her time looking for work.

The long-term unemployed "are ubiquitous, spread throughout all corners of the economy," Princeton University researchers wrote in a paper in March.

The insidious thing about such unemployment is that it often becomes self-perpetuating, a dark hole that gets harder and harder to escape.

At least 21 months after losing a job, the long-term unemployed are more than twice as likely to have given up looking than to have landed full-time work, according to Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and two other researchers.

For a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study, other economists sent out fake resumes to 3,000 actual job openings to test how employers' interest in candidates changes based on length of unemployment. The study concluded that callbacks for an interview drop sharply during the first eight months of joblessness.

"This kind of discrimination is pervasive," said Mitchell Hirsch, an unemployed-worker advocate with the National Employment Law Project.

Another insidious thing about unemployment — not as bad as the lack of money and the financial woe, but worse than it might appear to the uninitiated — is what to do with your time. Every day, there comes a point when you have applied for all the jobs you qualify for.

Keen applies for a wide variety: accounting jobs, HR jobs, logistics jobs, customer service jobs, cashier jobs, pizza delivery jobs. Jobs not only in Maryland but also where she has family or friends — Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Washington state.

Even so, she has time on her hands.

Some of it she fills with a strategy of erasing downsides employers might raise, such as having an associate's degree but not a bachelor's. She pieced together grants and student loans, enrolled at the University of Baltimore and earned A's in three courses last semester. She hopes to graduate next year.

She's applied for another grant so she can pursue a key human resources certification.

But still, there's time left over, time during the day, time in the black hours when she ought to be sleeping and can't. Never, until these jobless months, did she think too much time would be a problem.

"I miss working," she wrote in an email.

She doesn't think she should be unemployable. She explains the finer points of import-export documentation with gusto. She said her former boss calculated that she helped save Techalloy $152,000 a year in office expenditures by finding more efficient ways to do things. Her accounting assistant there, now a staff accountant in Florida, vouches for her attention to detail, work ethic and knowledge.

"I had no training in accounting, so most of what I know now is because of her," said Ashley E. Woike, 24, the former assistant.

Keen fills the empty stretches in various ways: Working to lose weight. Snapping photographs of life's moments of wonder and despair, from crashing waterfalls to city graffiti. Arranging to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and other groups. Dipping her toe into activism.

"I have kept enormously busy to try to not go insane," she said.

To D.C. and back

Her experience with Washington politics this spring was disheartening.

She drove to D.C. in May to speak at a hearing scheduled by House Democrats on long-term unemployment benefits, which were cut off in December — too early for her to qualify for them. The group ended up outside on the Capitol steps, Democrats saying Republicans kicked them out of their agreed-upon room, Republicans saying Democrats changed course on whether the news media would be invited.

Keen told her story. Politicians railed for the cameras.

Then she went home, and nothing happened. Washington went on bickering.

Later that month, the day the notice arrived that foreclosure proceedings would be started shortly on her house, she sat at her table and explained how it felt to have your life slide apart like butter in a frying pan.

Before, she always could find a way because she always could work. For two years, she worked seven days a week, split between two jobs.

Now "it all comes down to 52 years old and" — she paused, choking up — "nobody wants to hire me."

Then — a stroke of temporary luck. Her unemployment benefits, which ran out in February, restarted in July because the months she'd worked in 2013 qualified her for one last stretch. Enough to make the car payments on her 2006 Jetta, cover her laptop's Internet connection and give her something to negotiate with her lender, at least through December, when the benefits end again.

When Keen got home from the job fair, she logged on to her University of Baltimore account and had the first stamp-on-the-floor happy moment of the day. Her writing placement scores were in. She'd qualified for an upper-level course.

"I am so excited about this," she said.

After she signed up for the class, Keen looked for new openings in Baltimore and Seattle, where she planned to go on Labor Day weekend with her boyfriend. Lots more openings in Seattle.

"I mean, it's double the jobs," she said, perusing Craigslist. "There's just more opportunity for someone to give me a shot."

She saved a few to apply for later.

Then she drove to boyfriend Jeff Malcolm's house in Baltimore to get the money for her glass-blowing class — and a kiss.

Malcolm, who had just gotten off work plating metal at a small manufacturing shop, wanted to lift her spirits with a wonderful birthday present. Short of magically producing a job for her, he couldn't have done better.

She'd bought art glass since she was a child of 11, marveling at its beauty and how difficult it is to make. Now she could try her hand at creating her own.

Try, try again

Keen walked into McFadden Art Glass in Baltimore, hair pulled in a bun, and worked in heat topping 130 degrees with the biggest possible smile on her face.

Pliable though it is, molten glass does not particularly want to change its shape. Keen put hers back into the reheating chamber over and over — hitting the restart button — until she was sweat-soaked and satisfied by the tiny glass ball she'd produced.

Then she made an ornament, round like her ball but larger. Back and forth she went to the furnace until the shape coalesced.

"It is a little lopsided," Keen fretted.

Instructor Shawn Sokoloski, who had seen many worse examples from new students, reassured her that it was fine. He formed a loop at the top for an ornament hook, let her cut it and set her to grinding the rough edges off the snowman she'd made the week before. The class was over, the two hours zooming by.

"You did an awesome job this week," Sokoloski told her.

Those are the words she longs to hear from an employer. Her next employer.

But that night, she walked to the art-glass showroom next door and gazed at the dazzle-bright creations there, overheated and happy.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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