As the national economy continues to toss and turn, the unemployed are waking up to their worst nightmare: Even temporary jobs are scarce.
From Boston to Baltimore to San Francisco, tens of thousands of laid-off workers have inundated employment agencies with resumes in search of temporary jobs to see them through the recession.
"Two years ago, employers were saying, 'Just give me a warm body.' Now, they're interviewing three or four people," noted Carl Wright, co-partner of the Baltimore employment firm Don Richard & Associates, which places people in temporary and permanent positions. "The employment market is crowded. A company will take the top five and screen out the other 200."
In some regions, it seems as though the jobs have just dried up. Even the lowliest positions in the office environment now are considered prizes.
"How shall I put it? I've broadened my perspective," said 35-year-old Alex Stavrolakis, who was laid off as an assistant treasurer of a Baltimore manufacturer in June. Since then, he has sent out 500 mailings to prospective employers -- so far to no avail. Meanwhile, he has only managed to score two temporary work assignments through an agency. Neither lasted for more than a few days.
"It begins to affect you emotionally," said Mr. Stavrolakis, whose wife, Patti, works as an underwriter for a mortgage company. The couple is expecting their first child in January. "Everything I've done in my career has generally been well-recognized. Now, it's like you're on the outside looking in."
In San Francisco, where laid-off engineers are taking $8-an-hour jobs as secretaries, temporary employment recruiter Rob Montoya noted: "It's gotten so bad out here I almost consider what I do social work. You're dealing with all sorts of issues. Some of these people are desperate."
Even some of the employment agencies are in trouble: In Maryland and across the country, they are closing offices, laying off employment counselors and, in some cases, hiring temporary workers themselves as a way to cut costs.
The temporary-help industry, considered something of an economic shock absorber, reported 40,000 fewer jobs in August than the same month a year ago, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analyst Bill Goodman, who noted: "The whole economy is very weak right now."
In Los Angeles, college-educated Nora Corboy, 30, scoured the beachfront towns every day for five weeks for a nighttime waitressing job so that she could keep her days open for writing and pitching her screenplays to television studios.
Ms. Corboy figured she canvassed at least 100 restaurants before landing her prized job, which will pay minimum wage plus tips, last week. She registered with two temporary employment agencies first, but both told her that job pickings were slim. In fact, the agencies were even turning potential applicants away.
"It was the most incredible, the most demoralizing experience," said Ms. Corboy, who recently moved from Washington to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities in television. "I went through hell just to get a waitressing job."
She said restaurant managers told her they were getting as many as 100 applicants for a single waitressing position. "It was like a cattle call at one place," Ms. Corboy added. "You were going in for a waitressing job, and they were calling you back for second and third interviews."
In September, when the national unemployment rate hovered at just under 7 percent, 8.4 million people were reported jobless, according to government figures. An index of new help-wanted ads in the nation's newspapers, tracked monthly by The Conference Board, showed a decline in August not experienced since May 1983.
"Clearly, there are a lot more people out there looking for jobs," said Ken Goldstein, an economist with The Conference Board, which is a New York-based private, non-profit research organization. "Demand for jobs has gone sky-high."
In New York, "literally hundreds" of applicants apply for each opening, according to Mike Zaremski, who places people in permanent positions for the employment recruitment firm, Robert Half International. And, in Boston, TAC Temp manager Larry McCarthy noted: "In most cases, it takes an hour to fill a job. Sometimes, five minutes."
For many, the national recession -- which started officially in July 1990 -- has turned into national obsession.
Jean Tsang, 34, was laid off as art director of a furniture retailer in San Francisco in August 1990. At the time, she was making $40,000 a year. Of the 14 people who were furloughed in her department, only half have found jobs. One man, a camera technician, now loads trucks.
Mrs. Tsang sent out 200 resumes but didn't get a single job interview as a result of the mailing. An employment recruiter also came up empty. In May, almost a year after she was laid off, Mrs. Tsang finally got a free-lance job as a graphic designer for a manufacturer of computer accessories. She first learned about the job from a friend.