WASHINGTON — A Miami woman who exhausted her unemployment aid needs to pay bills. A Phoenix job-seeker wants a greater sense of purpose. A Boston woman has heard that hiring is picking up.
The economy absorbed a flood of 805,000 new job-seekers last month — the sharpest monthly influx in seven years. They were driven by economic need, renewed optimism and evidence that more employers are hiring.
They're right. Companies added a net total of 290,000 jobs in April, the most in four years. Yet so many people poured into the work force that they drove up the unemployment rate from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent.
Hundreds of thousands more will likely join them in the coming months, drawn by the improving economy and the possibility that Congress won't continually extend unemployment benefits. Their influx would send the unemployment rate back into double digits before it's likely to decline. And it will keep competition for jobs intense.
But those who have streamed into the labor force feel they can't wait any longer. They are people like Laura Gonzalez of Miami, whose on-again job hunt is the product of necessity. Her unemployment benefits cut off in April.
Gonzalez felt disheartened after being laid off from her job as an associate at an investment company early last year. At times, she stopped looking for work.
In the past few weeks, in need of money to pay for food and rent, she began looking more actively. She's applied for about 10 jobs a day over the past month.
"As much as they say there's new jobs out there, I don't see a turnaround at all," says Gonzalez, 28.
Neither does Julie Anderocci of Phoenix.
Six weeks ago, she lost her job as a customer service rep for Medicaid. For the first month, she mainly slept and ate. She was too upset to consider looking for work.
Now, besides needing money, Anderocci says she yearns for the pride and fulfillment a new job would bring. It isn't always easy to persevere, she finds.
"I'm working on being optimistic on finding a job — that's a job in itself," Anderocci says.
To try to stay positive about her search, she began volunteering at an animal rescue shelter.
"Looking for work at my age is the most stressful thing you can think of," says Anderocci, 56.
A sense of urgency infuses the job searches of many. Even with Congress' recent extensions of unemployment aid, hundreds of thousands of people a month could exhaust their benefits within a few months, according to some analysts' estimates. Under current law, jobless people can draw unemployment aid for up to 99 weeks.
Fear about losing that aid, along with rising job openings, will keep up the stream of new job-seekers. April's total of 805,000 new job-hunters — the most since 2003 — won't likely be topped, economists say, though it didn't set a record. More than 1 million people engulfed the labor market in June 1983, after the 1981-1982 recession. Still, nearly half a million new job-seekers a month are expected in coming months.
That's why the unemployment rate could top double digits again, economists said. The rate hit 10.1 percent in October.
Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a research group that monitors consumer behavior, says people tend to form a collective feeling that the time is right to look for jobs.
A neighbor or fellow churchgoer mentions openings. An unemployed friend lands work. Expenses pile up. Improving economic signs flash on TV.
Optimism spreads. Suddenly, more people start looking.
"It's like pulling a brick out of a dam," Goldstein says.
Caught up in the rush is Karen Vigurs-Stack, who began hunting again a few weeks ago. She hasn't worked full time since she left her job as marketing director for a Boston TV station when her son was born in 2002.
With her husband as the family's sole earner, the household budget has been squeezed. Weeks ago, Vigurs-Stack learned that more companies in the Boston area were hiring. Then she read about an Internet marketing firm hiring 100 people.
She made a decision then: "I thought, 'OK, now it's my time.' I wanted to take advantage when it's hot."
Yet it hasn't been easy. Vigurs-Stack notices that jobs posted to Internet boards are filled almost instantly. She has hooked up with an employment agency in hopes of getting an inside track on jobs before they're posted.
"I'll just have to pound the pavement a little harder," she says.
She's got plenty of company. About 5.5 people, on average, are competing for each available job opening. That compares with only 1.8 people per opening when the recession began in December 2007.
Jena Hartman of Greenwood, Ind., is among the fortunate ones.
On April 21, she landed a part-time job with an extension service run by Purdue University. She'd been looking since August 2008. Her husband had worked for three nursing home companies that all went bankrupt.
Hartman works 20 hours a week with elderly people and others on low incomes, teaching them how to stretch their dollars and buy nutritional foods.
Hartman, 60, used to work in the food industry before taking time off to watch her granddaughter while her daughter returned to school and then to work.
She had sent out hundreds of resumes over the first several months of her search.
"There must be a room someplace here in Indianapolis — and it's a fairly large room — that is wallpapered with my resumes," she says.
In June 2009, she found a job. But she was let go soon after.
"It took me about a month to lick my wounds and gather my self confidence again, and I just started the whole networking process again."
Hartman resumed the search last fall. She and her husband needed the steady paycheck. Hartman applied to work in dietary services at nursing homes. She looked for work with school lunch services.
Then the job at Purdue came through.
"I personally didn't see any turnaround," Hartman said. "I am a very religious person. As far as I'm concerned, this position is a gift from God, an answer to prayers."
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