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Many economists think the recession is ending, which does not mean the pain is ending for people out of work. If this recession follows the pattern of the past, employment will improve only slowly. And right now, the government says long-term joblessness is at its highest level since the 1940s. That means about five million people have been out of work for more than half a year.

Some of them spoke with NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT: Jaime Piner spent 23 years working as a cashier at a gas station in Maryland until he was laid off last year. Piner has been hunting for work ever since.

Mr. JAIME PINER: I've looking out around - when I get out through here, I go to some fast food company, try to see what I can get. Yeah, if I fill the application, but there's no job. I mean, if it's any, it's part time.

LANGFITT: I met Piner at Montgomery Works. It's an employment assistance office just North of Washington, D.C. Piner is 59 years old. He wears a gray suit, lavender shirt and matching tie. Piner doesn't have a job interview today. He just wants to be ready, but most businesses aren't hiring. And Piner doesn't blame them. He recalled asking the owner of a beer and wine store for a job recently.

Mr. PINER: He said, I would like to hire you, but look in my store. And it's true. You go in the store, like ghosts. It's nobody, just a cashier standing there or somebody stacking some stuff, or - but there's no customer.

LANGFITT: One reason people like Piner have been out of work so long is because consumer spending hasn't recovered. Last month, retail sales actually dipped .1 percent, according to the Commerce Department. Until they see real demand, most businesses don't want to start hiring. Another reason people can't find work is competition.

Mr. BRAD SECARUS: My name is Brad Secarus. I live in Bethesda. For the past eight years, I've worked in wholesale mortgage lending.

LANGFITT: Secarus lost his job in March. He's at Montgomery Works today to get help on his resume.

Unidentified Man: I have to ask you: Are you one of the bad guys?

Mr. SECARUS: I'm not one of the bad guys.

LANGFITT: Secarus insists he never dealt in subprime, but that hasn't made his job search any easier.

Mr. SECARUS: I've applied for, gosh, hundreds of sales jobs. I've kind of been blast emailing my resume out, hoping to get a response from anybody. And they're so overwhelmed with resumes coming through the door that they're, you know, if you don't have a standout resume, you're probably not getting a call back.

LANGFITT: Andy Stettner says numbers like that are typical of today's labor market. Stettner is deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, which helps low-wage workers.

Mr. ANDY STETTNER (Deputy Director, National Employment Law Project): There are six jobless workers for every job opening, so it's a game of musical chairs that most unemployed workers can't win.

LANGFITT: Such long odds are frustrating. Fred Quiroga is a resource specialist at the Montgomery Works office. As unemployment drags on, some people are running out of their government benefits and taking it out on others. Quiroga recalled one woman pushing another out of the way to get to a computer.

Mr. FRED QUIROGA (Resource Specialist, Montgomery Works Office): In the last month, we had to call the security guard a couple of times.

LANGFITT: And had you ever had to do that much before?

Mr. QUIROGA: No, no. Before it was nice, completely focused.

LANGFITT: After the recession, many jobs will return. But some won't, especially in sectors that are going through structural change, such as mortgage finance, the auto industry and high tech. That will make it even tougher for people to get back into those fields. Marissa Rivero is a software developer. In January, her job was outsourced to Asia.

Ms. MARISSA RIVERO (Software Developer): We have a big office in the Philippines, and, you know, the hiring is there.

LANGFITT: Where are you from, originally?

Ms. RIVERO: From the Philippines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: Rivero came to the United States in the 1980s. She built a nice life for herself and her 14-year-old daughter. Now, it seems to be slipping away.

Ms. RIVERO: Well, it's hard to, you know, lose a job and restart all over again.

LANGFITT: She's 50 now. Rivero worries her field may be passing her by.

Are you afraid at all that there may not be a job out there for you?

Ms. RIVERO: Sometimes, yes, but not the job that I want, because it's already outsourced somewhere in another country wherein they are younger and probably more, you know, quicker.

LANGFITT: Rivero knows it could take months to find work. So she's exploring something new: a government job. In the toughest labor market in decades, Rivero says government work would provide what she needs most: stability.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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