- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

It’s a rainy spring morning, and Tamara Ogier plants herself at a table in a Spartan room in the Atlanta federal courthouse, computer and tape recorder at hand, ready to hear another day’s stories of financial ruin.

Couples facing foreclosure. Merchants who’ve shut their doors. All sit on pewlike benches, waiting to tell the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee how they ended up in debt.

“I understand the assumption that we’re the guys in the black hats,” Ms. Ogier says, but “there are a lot of times when I’m actually able to do a lot of good.”

About 745 miles away, Jerry Miller tools along Iowa’s back roads. At almost 75, he feels he needs to keep working just to keep pace, even though he’s not in debt. He wonders, too, whether he’ll have to foot the bill for people who couldn’t manage their own money.

“I can’t believe because they got themselves in this situation, it’s falling on us to pay it back,” he said, heading to the first pharmacy where he would make deliveries this day. “Lord, you’re going to set a college kid loose with a credit card? Buy a house that costs 10 times your salary?”

It’s morning in America - but it’s not a good morning.

The nation is in a deep recession: Unemployment is at its highest level in more than 25 years. The auto industry is on the skids. Foreclosure and for-sale signs are as common in some communities as streetlights. And more bleak days seem to be ahead.

Many private economists expect that the monthly jobless rate will climb to 10 percent by the end of the year - it has surpassed that level in states such as Michigan, South Carolina and Rhode Island.

The bankruptcy rate is rising, too. Nearly 1.2 million debtors filed for bankruptcy in a one-year period ending in April, according to federal court records collected and analyzed by the Associated Press. In March, nearly 131,000 sought bankruptcy protection, an increase of 46 percent over a year earlier.

Then there are the people.

This is the story of a single day, and how Americans spent those hours in the shadow of economic distress, from worried debtors in a Georgia courthouse to a prospective home buyer in Michigan to an Arizona contractor struggling to find jobs.

On this day, no one person typifies hard times: In California, it’s a homeless Army Reservist who sleeps in his 17-year-old car. In South Carolina, it’s an unemployed factory worker who finds comfort in prayer.

And in Greenwich, Conn., home to hedge-fund billionaires, it’s David Rabin, who lost his $100,000 job in October as a senior vice president for a small financial services firm. He spends part of his morning job hunting online. A day earlier, he learned he didn’t get a position recruiting members for a gym.

“You have no idea how humbling all this is,” he said.

But watching Jim Juristy work, you wouldn’t know we’re in hard times.

A nursing supervisor in Morgantown, W.Va., Mr. Juristy will spend his 12-hour shift at Ruby Memorial Hospital trying to fill jobs, calling, cajoling and charming nurses to come to work.

Not only is Mr. Juristy, 54, in a relatively secure profession, but he lives in a thriving area (the county’s jobless rate in March was a relatively low 4 percent), home of West Virginia University and some recession-proof employers.

A former coal miner, Mr. Juristy made the unlikely transition in the mid-1990s after his mine closed. “I figured I could adapt or become a dinosaur. And dinosaurs became extinct, so I thought I’d darn well better adapt,” he said.

On this April morning when WVU Hospitals, which includes Ruby Memorial, had 200 job openings, TV news is announcing higher-than-expected March unemployment rates.

But Mr. Juristy needs workers. He tells his wife, Stephanie, a part-time clerical worker at the hospital, to start calling contractors, representing a pool of nurses from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who work extra shifts.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., Mark Zimmerman, 36, is struggling. The contractor’s printer spits out an estimate for a project he never would have taken two years ago: replacing concrete blocks supporting a carport.

The numbers aren’t pretty: Three days of labor. About $35 an hour for his workers. Another $250 in material. Mr. Zimmerman does some fast math on a handheld calculator. He gets 10 percent, so he’ll make $109.

“That doesn’t cover me for anything,” he said. “I’m actually losing money.”

Mr. Miller says working is not just about money. It’s reputation, too. “If you’ve got a good name, they can’t take that away from you,” he said.

He said he didn’t have a choice about retirement and needs the cash from his 15-hour-a-week job to pay for health care for himself and his wife, Barbara. “You’ve got to have faith in the system,” he said. “But can you tell me, where did all the money go?”

Khaaliq Parker, a 32-year-old unemployed auto mechanic, is holed up in a cubicle at Career Link employment center in San Francisco’s Mission District, checking e-mail for responses to resumes he sent.

He was laid off a year ago and has been homeless since December. Until then, he had lived in Oakland with his wife and 4-year-old son and her parents, but he said they kicked him out when he wasn’t making progress looking for work. So he sleeps in his 1992 red Mustang.

On this day, Mr. Parker receives his first $422 monthly workfare assistance check; he washed city buses in the morning to help earn that. He also squeezes by with food stamps and $60 a month from the Army Reserve.

He joined the military months ago to bolster his resume and get job training. He may be headed to Afghanistan within a year. He’s resigned to it.

Mr. Parker is not alone.

In March, the nation’s jobless rate rose to 8.5 percent, more than 13 million Americans. The recession, researchers say, has eliminated more jobs as a proportion of the work force than any other downturn since 1958.

Rhode Island is near the top of the list of states with high unemployment, with 10.5 percent in March.

That means more visitors to the weekly food kitchen at the Woodlawn Baptist Church, in a poor section of Pawtucket. Among them this day is Christine Fuss, who talks openly about how she lost her job as a hairdressing instructor last year because of complications from multiple sclerosis.

“No food, no money, no help,” she said. “There’s a lot of God in me because otherwise I wouldn’t keep getting up.”

c AP writer John Christoffersen, Nigel Duara, Amanda Lee Myers, Evelyn Nieves, James Prichard, Brian Skoloff, Bruce Smith, Vicki Smith, Eric Tucker and Dionne Walker contributed to this report.

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