An unemployed man once told me that looking for work was the hardest job he'd ever had.
And here's the thing: the longer you look, the harder it gets.
Bernard Stewart Prosise of West Hollywood is Exhibit A. In 2009, for the second time in five years, he lost an accounting job when his company downsized.
No problem, he thought. He had a lot of experience and a master's degree. Something would come through for him, even though he was 61.
Five years later, though, nothing has come through, despite what Prosise described as hundreds of job applications. And now he's among a frighteningly large group of Americans who lost jobs during the economic crash and haven't been able to get back on their feet.
Prosise was forced to begin taking Social Security at 62, which puts him at the lowest level of monthly pay, and when his unemployment insurance ran out two years ago, he began having to dip ever deeper into his retirement savings. Now 66, and having lost his partner of 29 years, he worries he could lose his rent-controlled apartment.
"I am desperately in need of employment of any kind," he wrote to me in an email, attaching his resume and saying he feared becoming homeless.
If Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions of those who work, what about those who'd like to join the party but have been left behind? Last week I talked with Prosise and two other people who understand his fears and frustrations all too well.
Though it sounds like a cruel joke, Sandy Goldfarb lost her job in 2010 with a nonprofit that lobbies for — pay close attention here — social and economic justice for retirees. She was 64, couldn't find a new job and ended up on food stamps, which involved an exhausting bureaucratic battle. Then she got sick, and the only way to get her leukemia medication was to go on Medi-Cal.
"The state requires you to be at poverty level in order to qualify," said Goldfarb, "so I've been living off donations." Social Security, her only income, doesn't cover the cost of her one-bedroom apartment.
In South Pasadena, Rashmi Malpe has similar worries. Plan B for her is to move to India and live with family, 24 years after coming to the U.S. to earn her doctorate in biochemistry.
Malpe learned the hard way that it's easier to find a job when you already have one. Hungering for a new scientific challenge, she quit her job six years ago, went home to visit family, and came back to start a new career. But except for a two-year freelance gig, nothing has materialized, and her only regular source of income is from caring for an elderly friend.
Malpe, 48, said she feels as though her resume has worked against her, because companies would rather hire younger, less-experienced people at lower pay.
"After a certain time," she said, "if you haven't had a job, they immediately label you as unhirable."
And that's not just her imagination, judging by the findings of a Boston economist. In 2012, Rand Ghayad produced several thousand job applications for people who don't exist. He gave his applicants virtually identical credentials, but some were unemployed for varying lengths of time.
"It turns out that even if you have a great education from excellent schools … once you spend more than six months out of work, nobody wants to call you," said Ghayad, of the economic consulting firm the Brattle Group.
Often, Ghayad said, no human being even looks at the application. An automated system kicks out anyone who's out of work. Ghayad calls it unemployment discrimination. And someone like Bernard Prosise of West Hollywood, Ghayad said, may be experiencing both unemployment and age discrimination.
The potential costs of all this are staggering when you consider the cresting wave of boomers, many of whom can't keep up with the technological skills required in many jobs.
Chris Tilly, director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said that despite an improving economy, the "scarring effect of displacement" endures for many who remain unemployed or make far less than they used to. And the safety net isn't strong enough to handle the fallout from the evaporation of pensions for all but public employees.
"Tying people's retirement to managing their own investments was a recipe for disaster, and the disaster is now happening in slow motion," said Tilly, who thinks more resources to assist and retrain people could be a wise investment.
L.A. County's Community and Senior Services department provides those very services to about 150 older adults and is finding work for about half the applicants, according to assistant director Josie Marquez. Lorenza Sanchez, another assistant director, said a recent success story involved a 69-year-old vet who was living in his car before being set up in a new job as a drugstore cashier to supplement his VA benefits.
Rafael Carbajal, a spokesman for the department, said the staff would reach out to Bernard Prosise and see if it can help him find work through Jewish Vocational Services in West Hollywood.
Dealing with rejection, for years, can be demoralizing, Prosise said. From the window of his apartment, he can see the geography of staggering wealth in the Hollywood Hills even as he identifies more with those who have fallen on hard times, and he wonders how far his own fall might be.
Last week, the computer he uses in his job search crashed, and Prosise had to make a decision. Should he invest limited funds in a new one or hold onto the money?
On Thursday, he bought a new computer, not yet ready to give up hope.