WASHINGTON — As America prepares to salute its working people this Labor Day weekend, Matthew McCaffery is in no mood to celebrate.
In better times, McCaffery served prime rib to three U.S. presidents, brought cocktails to congressmen and senators and found private booths for Supreme Court justices wary of the public eye.
As a senior waiter for 12 years at The Prime Rib, one of Washington's most venerable eateries, McCaffery was a man in demand, the preferred choice of the powerful and the envy of fellow waiters who bristled when the best customers requested his services, and his only.
"I had a lot of jealousy from other waiters because I would have so many; not just big shots, but regulars who would only have me wait on them. And if I wasn't working that night they wouldn't come in."
Among his prized possessions is a recommendation letter from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose funeral service last weekend brought tears to McCaffery's eyes.
"He would never let anybody else wait on him but me," McCaffery recalled. "He was really great."
After a lifetime in food service during which he's worked as a chef, bartender, dining room manager and even restaurant manager, McCaffery, 48, has been jobless for 13 months. Decades of working on his feet have left him with a bum knee that now requires surgery, and his work history doesn't wow restaurant owners like it used to.
"I honestly have the resume from God," McCaffery said. "Honestly. I have about 50 letters of recommendation and I still can't get a job with my outstanding, immaculate resume."
McCaffery is one of hundreds of local waiters whose fortunes have fallen along with Washington's once-thriving restaurant scene. He's also one of about 5 million Americans who've gone at least six months without a job.
That's the most since 1948, according to the Labor Department. These long-term jobless workers now make up more than a third of the nation's 14.5 million unemployed workers, and their plight has become a signature trait of this recession.
With an average of six job seekers for every available position nationwide, it's becoming tougher to find that elusive "next job."
If recent economic downturns are any indication, the suffering is far from over. When the last recession ended in November 2001, the unemployment rate continued to rise for 19 months, before it peaked at 6.3 percent in June 2003. A similar trend followed the end of the previous recession in March 1991. For the next 15 months, unemployment climbed from 6.8 percent to 7.8 percent in June 1992.
In a positive sign, employers are already increasing hours for employees, said Brian Bethune, the chief U.S. economist with IHS Global Insight. That increased labor demand, however probably will lead to temporary and part-time hires before more full-time positions are added — at least until employers feel more secure about the economy and the political climate, Bethune said.
"We're not going to see (major gains in) conventional types of employment. I don't think that's in the cards for another year at least and possibly two years," Bethune said.
In the meantime, workers such as McCaffery depend on their unemployment insurance to get them through. "I'm on my third extension," McCaffery said of his $310 weekly check.
For 500,000 unemployed Americans, though, those benefits are set to expire by the end of September. Another million will exhaust their unemployment insurance by the end of the year unless Congress extends it again, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based group that advocates for extended jobless benefits.
Bonnie Brooks of Grand Prairie, Texas, hasn't worked since she was laid off from a woodworking shop eight months ago. She said it took six months to find that job after she was laid off from her sales support job of 18 years at a credit union in November 2007.
In her first six months of unemployment this year, Brooks depended on her $350-a-week unemployment insurance check. After migraine headaches kept her from making the required number of weekly job contacts, however, her benefits were withheld beginning in August. She's been unable to fix that the problem, "and now I'm sweating it," she said.
Her 27-year-old son and her roommate also are unemployed, and Brooks said that after September, she's doesn't know how she'll pay her $830 monthly mortgage. Brooks, 51, has already used a third of her IRA to pay bills and she doesn't want to raid it again.
"I'm stressed. I'm really stressed. It's hard," she said. "They say things are getting better, but I don't see it. I don't know if it's my age or what, but they won't give me a job. It's not because I want too much money, because I'll take whatever."
Harold G. Kaufman, who heads the graduate program in organizational behavior at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, has studied the emotional toll of long-term unemployment. He said long bouts of joblessness can cause a person's mental state to deteriorate, leading to lower self-esteem, motivation and a feeling that they've lost control.
"That's critical because that leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness," Kaufman said.
In that situation, some people develop stress-related illnesses, while others become destructive toward themselves and others, which can lead to family problems. Others deal with the stress by disengaging socially and avoiding friends and family.
"They build a cocoon to buffer themselves from being rejected by the working world and others who may see them as not succeeding in life," Kaufman said.
After losing his job as a purchasing manager in the electronics industry, Patrick Smith of Corona, Calif., was unemployed for 19 months before he landed a position last week with a defense contractor. The timing couldn't have been better — his third extension of unemployment benefits had just expired.
During his long unemployment spell, Smith, 45, had experienced many of the problems that Kaufman said were possible. Smith was arguing more with his wife, his blood pressure and anxiety levels rose; he had trouble sleeping, had lots of headaches and developed flu-like symptoms.
Smith said he had sold most of his antique electronics and firearms collection to make ends meet and was on the verge of losing his home when he got the new job. His experience will make this a Labor Day to celebrate.
"I'm celebrating life differently," Smith said. "Being so close to the abyss and falling over and then, all of a sudden, life is renewed. Everything has changed. It's a religious experience. Thank God, is all I can say."
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