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One day at a time for the long-term unemployed

Lesley Perkins holds her pet rabbit, Daisy.

Lesley Perkins looks through her "current projects box."

Tess Vigeland: Five million. That's how many Americans have been out of work for six months or more. We don't hear much about the long-term unemployed. Well, we hear numbers. But we don't often hear directly from them because many give up looking for work and the government stops counting them.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer spoke with one woman who refuses not to be counted.


Nancy Marshall-Genzer: Lesley Perkins has a sparkling smile and infectious laugh. She's single, in her early 40s. I met her at her condo in northern Virginia.

Knock on door

Genzer: Hi Lesley.

Lesley Perkins: Hi Nancy.

Genzer: I'm Nancy.

Perkins: Come on in.

The walls are painted bright yellow. A pet bunny named Daisy dozes in a cage in one corner. We settle onto the couch. Perkins lost her job about 18 months ago, two weeks after her mom died. She took a week off to bury her mother. Then...

Perkins: Went back to work and was let go. Yeah, it was very, very tough.

And things haven't gotten any easier. Perkins has a morning routine. She feeds Daisy, then calls her father to check up on him. He's also sick, diagnosed with a rare gastro-intestinal disease in 2008.

Next, Perkins settles down in front of her computer -- to see if she's had any bites.

Perkins: Check my Yahoo account to see if anybody has responded. Let's see. I have three e-mails, and they are junk e-mails. So, yeah...

Perkins estimates she's sent out hundreds of resumes in the past 18 months. In all that time, she's had just six interviews and some of them were over the phone. Her resume is impressive. She has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. Her last job was as a management consultant. Perkins says now, her job is seen as a luxury by companies obsessed with surviving in a rough economy.

Perkins: Unfortunately, I think that in the short term, it's a matter of stopping the bleeding right away rather than having necessarily a long-term view.

But Perkins has to stop the bleeding on her balance sheet. She has a monthly mortgage for her condo. Her unemployment checks will stop coming in a few months. Her COBRA health insurance ends in a few days. She's managed to find a new, bare-bones insurance plan for herself and she's got some savings. She cancelled her cable, avoids the mall and never goes out to eat. Still, she knows her money will run out eventually if she doesn't get a job.

Perkins says it's hard not to get depressed.

Perkins: I think you definitely feel low. And it would be hard not to feel low in this situation. Every time I get a rejection letter it's like, "Oh my gosh, what is wrong?" But it's kinda like, "OK, let me kind of get over this."

But some people never get over the rejections and the trauma of losing a job. Suicides increase during a recession. And the longer you're unemployed, the higher the risk you'll attempt suicide.

Richard Dunn is a health economist at Texas A&M University. Dunn has studied what happens to workers who lose their jobs in mass layoffs.

Richard Dunn: There's an additional suicide for every 4,000-7,000 jobs that are lost. Which doesn't sound like a lot until you consider that in the last year there were nearly two million job losses from mass layoffs.

Dunn says the downward spiral toward suicide starts with withdrawal. People stop meeting up with friends and avoid neighbors. They don't want to talk about the loss of their job or much of anything. Back in northern Virginia, Lesley Perkins says she does have to fight the temptation to withdraw into a shell.

Perkins: Yeah, I could sit around being mad and frustrated and bitter and in the end, the only one that hurts is myself. I'm not in the business of trying to hurt myself. I experience all those things but, OK been there, done that -- let's move on. What's the next step?

Perkins already has the answer for that. She rifles through pulls out a clear plastic box crammed with manila folders. She calls it her "current projects" box.

Perkins: It has my resumes, it has all the stuff I've worked on, I'm working on at the moment.

One thing Perkins is working on at the moment? A support group for the unemployed called the Job Seekers Accountability Group. Perkins started the group about a month ago. She gives the group members assignments every week.

Perkins: I really hesitate to call it homework but in some ways, it's homework. And then we also have a challenge of the week, things that we really need to do to get ourselves out there and visible.

But Perkins says it's hard to make yourself visible to prospective employers.

Perkins: There's the throwing your resume out there and just hoping it sticks. And there's kind of the, let me take a more strategic, targeted approach to doing this. Probably I've gotten to that point.

So, she researches companies before applying for a job with them. She puts key words in her resume that she thinks computer programs will search for. And she tries to get to the people doing the hiring. Perkins is telling me about her network of friends and former colleagues, who give her tips on job openings, when her cell phone rings...

Sound of phone ringing

Perkins: See, that actually might be a potential project.

Genzer: Oh! Pick it up!

Perkins: Hello, hi Janie, how are you doing?

Janie is colleague of Perkins' former boss. She thinks Perkins would be the perfect person to run an employee survey for a client of hers. It would be a freelance project, not a full-time job. But it's a start.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Lesley Perkins holds her pet rabbit, Daisy.

Lesley Perkins looks through her "current projects box."

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