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Another article in the  "Best Country in the World"  Series

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Jobless resort to online posts to find work

By Judy Keen, USA TODAY/October 4, 2011


"Hungry" is the headline on a Craigslist post from Phoenix. In Boise: "I NEED WORK!!!" In Chicago: "Laid off vet needs to pay rent." In Little Rock: "Please help us!!!" In Richmond, Va.: "Need a miracle." In Oklahoma City: "Broke girl needs help fast."

Janet Edburg and Paul Jordan

Lawrence Gales does lawn work for a client he found through a Craigslist classified ad. He has been doing odd jobs in Jacksonville so he can feed his 3-year-old son.

Craigslist, a network of online communities that offers free classified advertisements, is a portal into the misery of people who are struggling to find jobs. Posts from people who are desperate for work read like Haiku poems that detail hard times and fear.

Some people post sad tales that might or might not be true, and ask for cash donations or loans. Most, though, offer to do almost anything legal for pay. Need Ikea furniture assembled? The going rate is $20-$40. Need your garage organized? That will set you back as little as $10 an hour. Jobless people offer rides across town or to the airport. They'll tend to aging parents, repair cars or replace kitchen faucets.

Alley Foster was thinking about his 7-month-old daughter when he sat at his computer to write a post on Craigslist.

"New father (looking for any work)," he wrote. "Call me anytime for a job."

Foster, 29, who lives in Missoula, Mont., was homeless until two years ago. The only full-time job he had ever had was at a Wendy's restaurant. Now that he has quit drinking, he's determined to build a life for his little girl, Araya, and marry her mother. He really needs a job.

"I've been trying to find a maintenance position, but there isn't the money in the local economy for that," he says. "Nobody hires unless they have to, and when they do hire they pay so little that it doesn't help anybody."

So he turned to Craigslist, where he offered to repair roofs, do electrical or plumbing work, upholstery, construction, moving, remodeling, lawn care. The post has landed him a few jobs, he says. To get through the winter, he plans to offer his services for snow removal and putting up Christmas lights.

"People like me, we're prepared for the worst," he says, recalling his homeless days. "I can live off $3 a day, but I'm concerned for my daughter. I don't want her to have to go through stuff like that."

Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says people who have been living on the margins are up against more than the nation's 9.1% unemployment rate. "The people who have been unemployed the longest and the people who have the least amount of schooling are the ones who are going to recover last," he says.

It will take a robust recovery — which Burtless doesn't think is imminent — for employers to "hire anybody, including people who have been out of work for three years," he says.

Until then, Craigslist and other online resources offer at least some hope for short-term work for modest pay to the unemployed.

Chicago: 'Need some extra help?'

When Anna Briskman left her job as an events planner at the Field Museum in April, she figured it would take two or three months at the most to find a new position. She's still looking, and her Craigslist post says she's willing to help with errands, shop for groceries or "clean out the garage or kitchen with you."

Briskman, 31, has a degree in hospitality administration and experience working at hotels and on cruise ships. She networks, volunteers and posts her résumé on career sites.

"It's just a lot of good competition out there, and people just don't get back to you at all," she says. She lives with a sister and has supportive friends who keep her spirits up, but "it's been getting harder" to cope, Briskman says.

While she depletes her savings to cover living expenses, she still hopes she will find a job that advances her career. Meanwhile, she has helped someone clean out their garage, helped organize friends' weddings and participated in focus groups for modest pay. She trained for and competed on a relay team in a triathlon, which she says kept her motivated and fulfilled.

"I believe that life is full of valleys," she says. "This is just hills and valleys."

Jacksonville: 'I am needing work'

In his post, Lawrence Gales, 33, says he is "a hard worker, honest, dependable, with reliable transportation," he writes. "Also I have a 3-year son that I am trying to support. I do lawn care, auto cleanup, pressure washing, painting."

Behind those words is a complicated life. He hasn't held a full-time job since 2008. A couple winters ago, desperate for work, he sat by the side of the road holding a sign that read "looking for work" until police ran him off. His Craigslist post has gotten him a few jobs, mostly doing lawn work and a little roofing.

Depending on strangers to treat him fairly hasn't always worked out. He worked for one man for three days and was paid just $20. "This is what he thought I was worth," Gales says. "That has affected me."

He wants to support his son, Lawrence Jr., and his son's mother, and it weighs on him when he can't. "It really makes me depressed to be struggling and trying to find the right direction to go in life. I'm just looking for that one opportunity."

First he has to make it through the winter. He worries he'll have to sell his lawn equipment; that would make it harder to get jobs in the spring. He has had to borrow money from his family, increasing his stress. "We don't know where we're going to be tomorrow," he says.

New Orleans: 'Reasonable rates' offered

Peggy Ranson, an ad and marketing designer, took a buyout from the New Orleans Times-Picayune two years ago. She had recently had a heart attack, and the deal was appealing: salary and health-insurance coverage for one year.

That year went by quickly, and Ranson, 62, had developed a condition that made it difficult to walk. Her prescriptions cost about $400 a month. Her ailments put her on disability, and she can't handle a full-time job. "It took a few months for it to sink in that I really needed to seek extra income," she says. She stopped taking one of her medications that cost $200 a month.

After a few months of looking on Craigslist for part-time work, a friend suggested that she advertise her services on the site. It worked. She has found a design job, and two-thirds of her fee was paid upfront.

"All I know is I have gotten some nibbles," she says, "and one seems to have worked out."

Bloomington, Ill.: 'Want to do your chores'

Layla Trumper lays out her predicament in stark terms in her Craigslist post. "So here is the deal," she writes. "I am currently laid off, and unemployment barely pays me enough to eat every month after bills."

She explains that she's willing to do "whatever you might need help with" for $10 an hour: yard work, cleaning, dog sitting, general labor.

Trumper, 26, moved to Illinois from Oregon a year ago to be with her boyfriend, a college student. In Oregon, she worked full-time cleaning apartments.

Since the move, she has had a couple of temp jobs. Fast-food restaurants aren't hiring. "Months go by, and you don't even get a bite. That's why I went to Craigslist," she says.

She has gotten a few jobs cleaning houses, but transportation is an issue; her 1998 car has 250,000 miles on it, bad tires and broken windshield wipers. She gets food stamps and $440 a month in unemployment benefits.

Her situation is hard on her self-esteem, Trumper says. "It's hard to be like, 'I'm going to try my best today,'" she says. "I really do want to work." Between job searches, she does art projects. "At least I'm making progress somewhere."

There's a postscript on her online post. "I am not one of those college girls that will do chores in sexy clothing. I actually want to just do a job and nothing inappropriate so please don't ask."

Phoenix: 'Willing to do whatever it takes'

All Chris Pacion wants is a chance.

He's 19 and has never had what he calls "a 9-to-5 job." He has no high school degree but is working for his GED. He has no family to help. He has no car. He has lived on the streets but now gets food stamps and is sharing an apartment with friends.

He has dreams, though. He would love to go to college and become an architect. He would love to build a house in Oregon.

For now, though, Pacion is struggling.

"I don't care what it is that you want me to do, just as long as you are willing to pay me," his Craigslist post says. "I am very smart and I am very determined. Please give me a chance to prove what I'm worth."

He doesn't mind cleaning and will "scrub toilets," his post says. "I'll do yard work, weed whacking, lawn mowing, anything! I don't care what it is, I'll do it!"

Pacion says he wants to "finally be able to make it on my own." His post has gotten him a few jobs, mostly doing lawn work. He spends part of each day at a public library and the learning center where he's studying for his GED, applying for jobs online.

He wishes the federal government would do more to help people like him. "They're not creating jobs," he says. "As much as they say they want to and they will, they're not. Instead of sending jobs to China, they should be building factories here."

Pacion says he's motivated to succeed and never wants to live on the streets again. "I just need somebody to give me a chance," he says. "Once I get that, I'm good. I have that much confidence."

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