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New York's Jobless Fill the Garden

It was billed as a job fair for people who wound up unemployed as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But the Twin Towers Job Expo, held on Oct. 17 at New York's Madison Square Garden, attracted more than just laid-off workers from lower Manhattan. An estimated 8,000 job seekers -- many of whom were thrown out of work months ago -- showed up for the six-hour event.

City organizers vowed that everyone would get a turn with the 200-odd employers inside. But at the end of the day, many were turned away. "It's insane," said Dara Pisani, a recruiter for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as she thumbed through a stack of resumes three inches thick.

The overwhelming turnout illustrated the unemployment problem facing New York City. The New York State Labor Dept. estimates that more than 100,000 people could lose their jobs in the wake of September 11. But that's only part of the story. Since the beginning of the year, thousands of workers in Gotham have been downsized, from Wall Street investment bankers to hotel bell hops. Many remain jobless because of the slack economy.

HOURS IN LINE. In September, New York City's unemployment rate climbed to 6.3%, from 5.8% a month earlier. It's now at its highest level in two years, and it will likely get worse. According to labor economists, the impact of September 11 won't start showing up in New York City's unemployment numbers until November at the earliest.

Those who came to the Expo wore their Sunday best and waited for hours in a line that wrapped several times around the huge building. The lines didn't get any better inside: Job seekers stood six deep to speak with recruiters at companies such as IBM and AOL Time Warner. At one point, an announcement over the Garden loudspeakers asked candidates not to linger so that more people could be ushered in. Even smaller outfits, such as security firm Watchdog Patrols in Huntington Station, N.Y., received their share of visitors. "We're getting a lot more people than I expected," said Watchdog's Nick Ganas during a brief pause in traffic.

The good news is that at least some participating companies, including Watchdog, appeared to be hiring. Local retailers interviewed candidates on the spot for sales-clerk positions. Other companies grilled job seekers about their skills and willingness to relocate. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering's booth, recruiter Margaret Valente said the hospital has a couple hundred open positions at any given time, ranging from food handlers to nurses. Problem is, she still has more applications than jobs. She and her staff will divvy up the pile of resumes, sift through them, and then call people back for interviews.

ALL KINDS OF FOLKS. Employers at the Expo say they'll give first dibs on jobs to people directly affected by the Trade Center attacks. But even folks who didn't fit that criteria had some luck. Patrick Mulvey, a 27-year-old New Jerseyan who was laid off shortly after Labor Day, snagged an interview with tech company Globix. He has had little success with online job boards and networking, so getting even one prospect at the Expo was "good enough for me," he said.

The diversity of job seekers milling around the Expo was another sign of how widespread unemployment has become. Out-of-work MBAs roamed the exhibit floor with former secretaries and cleaning ladies. A line to use the only photocopier on the floor included blacks, whites, Hispanics, middle-aged women, and young guys in slick suits.

Meg Regal, 32, recently got sacked after her employer, a 16-year-old tech company in New Jersey, shut its doors for lack of business. The company's 200 employees were canned without any severance or continuation of benefits. Regal spent five years with the business as a marketing manager and still seems shaken by her sudden job loss. She heard about the Expo through friends and figured it would be a chance to shop her résumé to several employers at once. At this point, she says, she isn't sure what she'll end up doing.

SECOND EXPO. Others seemed more upbeat. Vanessa, a 21-year-old woman from Brooklyn who declined to give her last name, stood outside for two hours before getting into the building. About a week after the terrorist attacks, she lost her $7-an-hour job vacuuming airplanes at John F. Kennedy International Airport. She hopes that 1 of the 20 applications she filled out at the Expo will lead to something, maybe a job at Starbucks. But that's a short-term solution for Vanessa: Next year, she's enrolling in college to become an English teacher.

In response to the massive turnout, city organizers have arranged a second Expo for Oct. 25. Another overflow crowd of job seekers is practically a given. As Big Apple businesses continue to shed workers to get through the downturn, the question is: Will any employers be looking to hire? By Jennifer Gill in New York

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