Unemployed, through no fault of their own

The Baltimore Sun

One by one, the 30 strangers will go around the room sharing how they wound up here - out of a job and on unemployment benefits. First, Rufus Miller breaks the ice with a motivational speaker's zeal, smiling tightly as if to convey empathy but determination, too.

"It's great to meet you here, though it's unfortunate that you're unemployed," he says. "But this is the beginning of other things, do you agree?"

Murmurs of assent, a few nodding heads, nervous smiles, a stray yes or two.

"There is no doubt within any of your minds that you'll be working again, is that correct?"

More muffled agreement.

"Even with some difficulties, some barriers and obstacles," he goes on, his pinstripe suit jacket buttoned, shiny gold chains encircling both wrists, "you will overcome them all."

The men and women have traveled from their homes throughout Baltimore County to this classroom in the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center, where a poster advises, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

They have no choice. Draw unemployment insurance (a maximum of $380 a week for up to 46 weeks), and you must attend a two-day, government-sponsored class. The idea isn't just that people should exert effort while on the public dime, but that facilitators like Miller can expose them to an array of services and tips to help them land new jobs or careers.

At the Eastpoint center, the nose-diving economy has turned the usual stream into a torrent. Traffic is on pace to eclipse last year's by 40 percent, says manager Leo Martinelli. As he explains later to this very group, just since October the number of monthly visits has soared from 1,800 to more than 2,500. The county has a second Workforce Development Center in Hunt Valley.

After Miller describes his job, it's time to hear from those united by the lack of one. In many cases their jobs disappeared as far back as Thanksgiving, collateral damage from the crumpling of big retailers like Circuit City and the cutbacks at other companies large and small.

The session quickly takes on a group therapy feel, with the first-name-only introductions and semipublic airing of personal pain.

"My name is Doris," says a middle-aged woman at the end of the table. "I was previously employed by Boscov's, which went out of business."

She's hoping to find day work, preferably part-time. "Whatever comes along," she says. She has one lead, a hostess opening at a new Chic-Fil-A.

Perfect, Miller says. After all, the fast-food restaurant is seeking "competent people that have that big smile and that enthusiasm you possess."

Turning to the woman next to Doris, Miller exclaims, "Good morning!"

"Good morning," answers Teri, twirling a red pen. She got laid off from a bookkeeping job but hopes to stay in the field, given her 30 years of experience.

"That means you are exceedingly good," Miller says. "So you're one of the best out there?"

"Could be."

"You say you are?"

Next is a gentleman with a long ponytail. "Hi, my name is Bill." He used to edit databases. When his firm merged with another, he landed on the street.

Next: Vina, who spent 23 years at Mercy Medical Center as an executive assistant. When her boss lost his job, she lost hers. "So I went bye-bye." She's trying to find an employer as good as Mercy had been.

"You mean you are going to," Miller corrects her.

"I will, I will."

"You will. We are 'will' people."

Next, Miller greets Nancy, a gray-haired accountant with no numbers to crunch. The man beside Nancy takes his turn, sort of haiku-style.

"Good morning. John. Sales manager. Car dealership. Need I say any more?"

He gets laughs, but Miller has a comeback: "That sales marketability can be transferred to some other areas of sales. A lot of people are making career changes and focusing on things they never thought about."

Jeff, wearing a sweater vest over a button-down shirt, also sold cars, or tried to. Brittney, among the youngest at 19, used to work at an Acura dealership. Now she's studying to be a nurse, as recession-proof a job as there is, and needs work that fits her schedule.

Beside her sits Brandon, a media specialist who'd been with a federal contractor. Across from him is Jason, a young fellow in a brown hoody. He doesn't miss his traffic control job. "I'm getting out," he says, admitting to Miller that he lacks a plan.

Behind Jason, another young man, Dominick, leans against the back wall. He managed a restaurant in Howard County. "Got let go because of the downsizing in the economy," he says, "pretty much same as everybody sitting here."

Fidelis, a Nigerian immigrant, tells everyone that he was sent packing by a child care center. And Justin was pink-slipped by Sam's Club. Now, he says, "I'm looking for basically anything."

"Anything?" Miller replies before applying a little rhetorical gloss. "So you have so much to choose from. That's great."

And on it goes. Zach, a burly 20-something, sold car audio gear at Circuit City. Gary worked for a car dealership that's "no longer with us." Kim lost a printing job after 12 years, Aurelia a florist job after 10.

Betsy was a fast-food manager, John a salesman. Mary Ann was one of five employees at a defunct biotech firm in Columbia.

Kim's black nail polish seems apt as she relates the demise of her job in DVD sales.

"Went to work one day, the doors were locked. They didn't tell anyone. Bankruptcy. I was bawling my eyes out. I was like, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?' "

Miller, uncharacteristically, offers no reassuring response.

But later, as he engagingly pulls participants into a back-and-forth dialogue on crafting resumes, accentuating strengths, minimizing weaknesses and the like, he makes a pointed observation.

"At one time there was a stigma associated with people receiving unemployment," he says. "But look how many competent, experienced, result-oriented people are here because of no fault of their own."

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