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On the Rebound

Looking for help at a job fair for refugees from September 11's economic fallout.

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They weren't close friends. Back when they still had jobs with United Airlines, Joanne Sperekas and Deb Lang worked on the same floor of United's headquarters in Elk Grove Village, but Joanne was a crew scheduler, Deb an aircraft router. They both lived in Des Plaines, though, so on nights when they were stuck with the 3-to-11 shift, Joanne often gave Deb a lift home. Deb tried to give Joanne gas money, but she never took it. So sometimes Deb would leave a candy bar in Joanne's mailbox.

After September 11 United laid off 22,000 workers. Deb and Joanne both lost their jobs in October; Joanne took it harder. She'd started at United as a typist in 1986 and worked her way up to her job assigning crew members to Boeing 767s flying out of New York, Washington, and Miami. The benefits were great: she'd used her free employee tickets to vacation in Singapore, Tokyo, Bali, Hong Kong, and Paris.

Joanne's job with United had outlasted her marriage; she'd expected to retire with the company. After they cut her loose she sat in her apartment, her nine-year-old daughter, Kristen, keeping her company. Wondering what she'd done to lose her job, she descended into "a black place." She didn't watch TV, or read the papers, or pick up the telephone. She submitted some resumes over the Internet, but the aviation industry was flooded with applications and she never heard a thing, which made her even more discouraged. Over the winter her company health benefits expired. Then her savings dwindled to zero. In April she applied for unemployment. She'd never wanted to take a handout, but her rent was $800 a month.

She expected humiliation, but her caseworker--who called her at home to check up--told her that Congress had voted to give $6,000 in job-training money to each laid-off airline employee and gave her the number of Deborah Novak, another ex-United employee who'd founded Action Launch, a job-search agency for workers laid off due to the terrorist attacks.

Joanne called. You sound like you'd be qualified to become a dispatcher, Novak told her. Joanne had always wanted to be a dispatcher--it can pay up to $90,000 a year--but as a single mother with a full-time job, she'd never had the time or the money for classes. We can send you to dispatch school, Novak told her. We have a woman named Deb Lang who just finished the classes.

Deb Lang! Joanne hadn't spoken to Deb since the layoffs. She didn't even have her phone number, but she remembered the house. Deb was walking her dog when a familiar car stopped at the curb.

"Hey, Deb!" Joanne cried, jumping out of the car. "Did you just go to flight dispatching school? I'm gonna go now too!"

Deb was still unemployed as well, so they decided to go to a job fair for workers displaced by the terrorist attacks. It was two weeks away, which meant they needed resumes fast. Deb's husband still had a job, so Deb bought Joanne a pair of printer cartridges and a package of beige resume paper.

The job fair was held June 18 in a windowless, warehouse-sized room at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. The concrete floor was scuffed, bare lightbulbs blazed under metal hoods, and a wall of black curtains surrounded the booths. Everywhere she looked, Joanne saw former coworkers--people who thought they'd never have to look for a job again--wearing interview suits and holding stacks of home-computer resumes. She picked up a program and made a check mark by the name of every company that flew jets: Camden Aviation, USA 3000 Airlines, FedEx, Comair. Now that she was out on the job hunt her gloom was dissolving. She flipped her blond-streaked hair, smoothed her skirt, straightened the crystal pin an old coworker had sent her for good luck, and joined the long line in front of the USA 3000 booth.

"I'm a former United employee," Joanne told the recruiter. "I worked as a pilot crew scheduler."

"Oh, lucky you," replied the recruiter, a tall woman in a flight attendant's uniform.

"Well, it's a wonderful job. What positions do you have available?"

"The majority of our positions are in Philadelphia," the recruiter said. "Here in Chicago, we have station operations, flight crew. How open are you to relocating?"

"Hoping to stay in Chicago," said Joanne, who doesn't want to move Kristen.

"Thank you. We will be in touch."

The recruiter dealt out a business card. Joanne held it at arm's length to read the tiny print.

The interviews were like three-minute speed dates. After pitching herself to nearly a dozen companies--"I'm a former United employee enrolled in flight dispatch school in July. Can I leave my resume?"--Joanne spotted Deb, looking buoyant in a black pantsuit. Deb strode forward and they hugged.

"You look great," Deb told her.

Joanne had to run outside to check on her car. She hadn't had the cash to park in the convention center's garage, so she'd left her car in a lot next door, praying it wouldn't get towed. A $100 towing charge would have been another one of those taxes she paid for being broke, like the late fees on her bills. When Joanne returned, she and Deb sat down by the concession window to drink tiny $1.75 Diet Cokes. A reporter from the Daily Herald sat down next to them. He was working on a "one year later" story for September 11, 2002--could Joanne tell him what had happened to her "on that fateful day"? Joanne wasn't sure if she was up to an interview, but she tried.

"I was working on the New York 767 pilot crew desk at United World Headquarters in Elk Grove Village," she began. "The two United crews were both New York-based crews, and they were my crews. I knew the pilot of the second plane that hit the World Trade Center."

As she talked, Joanne's hands trembled. To still them, she pressed her right fist into her left palm, but even then her eyes gave away her dismay.

"I remember getting up from my desk and saying, 'Hey, what happened here?' It was on CNN. Someone said, 'A helicopter hit the World Trade Center.' I said, 'No, something bigger happened here.' I called a Washington-based pilot who was off work and he told me it was a plane. After that, I had to man the phones and keep the crews with the airplanes. Wherever you were, that's where they tried to keep you. There were a lot of pilots who wanted to go home."

After five minutes, the reporter left and Joanne relaxed. She and Deb talked about the weekend. Deb's been working for Murco Recycling, a company that auctions off doorknobs, windows, fireplaces, staircases, and floors from houses about to be demolished. The next Saturday she had a job in Wilmette and was bringing Joanne along to help. It would be Joanne's first work since a temp job with a cell phone company over the winter.

"I'll do anything if I can take home a hundred dollars," Joanne said wryly. "I wouldn't mind doing one of those airport-security screener jobs. Thirty-seven thousand a year and a chance to get in with the government? I'd take that."

"I couldn't do that," Deb said. "I couldn't do something where I was looking at a screen all day."

"You're married," Joanne shot back.

They finished their Cokes, then walked out into the parking lot. The car was still there, a 1990 Buick Regal that looked almost new, because Joanne had rarely driven farther than the three miles to work and back. Deb climbed into the passenger seat. Joanne was giving her a ride home.

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