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A job and a normal life: Is that too much to ask?

June 23, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Helen Willis first told me that looking for a job is like looking for a date, I didn't get what she was driving at. After all, one is about romance, while the other is about making enough money to pay your bills.

But when I thought about it, I realized that she's right. When you see someone for the first time, they make a quick judgment about you, based on what you look like, as opposed to your sparkling personality.

The same is true, I'm sure, with many employers, or at least with the people who do their employment interviews. Rsums can only tell you so much, after all. When you see the flesh-and-blood candidate, it can be a whole different story, and not always one with a happy ending.

Willis knows this story well. The 39-year-old Hagerstown woman goes to interviews with a rsum that she's polished time and again, a cover letter and even a business card that describes her as an "office specialist" and lists the computer programs she knows how to operate.

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But all her training and professional-looking paperwork can't change the one fact that may be off-putting to potential employers - she has dwarfism.

She's just 4-foot-3 and her arms and legs are not what most people think of as normally proportioned. To reach the top drawer of a four-drawer file cabinet, she needs a step stool.

Under federal law, employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for her disability, but I'm sure sometimes when she arrives they wonder: Can I send her downstairs to get a stack of mail? Can she handle putting 500 sheets of paper into the copy machine?

At a time when there are more people looking for jobs than positions to be filled, the odds of someone taking a chance on her are probably not in her favor.

Only the Sheetz convenience store has offered her work, which she said is much appreciated. But it's only part time, about eight to 10 hours a week and she needs a full-time job to supplement that.

"I run the cash register and check on the coffee. They want to see what I can do, like cleaning the bathroom and stocking cigarettes. I told them I can do as much as you can give me," she said.

But she'd like her full-time job to be office work, such as typing, filing and answering the phone.

"I had been doing some office work in another state on a temporary basis, but the long drive back and forth just got to be too much," she said.

She explained that her condition makes it difficult to drive long distances and that her car, an aging Subaru, isn't a vehicle she can always count on.

And so she does what her job counselor advises her to do. She scans the newspaper for help wanted ads, goes to job fairs and workshops where job seekers get tips such as "Be assertive, but not aggressive."

She changes her rsum and her cover letter periodically and after an interview, she always sends the person who interviewed her a thank-you note.

"If you look good on paper and you have the interview and you speak well of yourself and you still don't get the job, after a while you begin to wonder," she said.

Even though she's been doing office work since she was in high school, she went to classes at the Western Maryland Consortium to learn MS Word and MS Excel.

"I'd just like someone to try me out. If you don't give someone a chance, you never know," she said.

"Not to complain, but it's getting frustrating. I've not even been able to have much of social life because my main focus is on getting a job," she said.

Asked if she ever feels like giving up and asking for government assistance, she emphatically says no.

"I want to work. I don't want to be a burden. I have been doing things to better myself. I don't want a handout," she said.

She described an encounter with a man who had watched her park her car, then came up to her and said, "Oh, you drive," as if that were unusual.

"I drive a car. I work. I can date. I'm able, not disabled," she said.

If you're an employer who has a clerical position that you need to fill, why not give her a shot?

How do you do that? I had hoped that a temporary agency she's listed with would allow me to share their name and number in this column, but for reasons they declined to explain, they said no.

So just call me at 301-791-7622, day or night, or e-mail me at bobm@herald-mail.com.

"I'd like to get my life back together and get to know some single man in the county and have a life like everyone else," she said.

Asked what the ideal finish to this story would be, Willis said, "A happy ending would be I would stop with this job search and get a permanent job or a part-time job with a lot of hours.

"If some people in the past thought I wasn't trying, I really am giving it my best and giving it a shot," she said.

I can't speak to her clerical skills - she's got references for that - but as for persistence, she's got plenty. I'm betting that if she ever gets the full-time job she's seeking, she'll perform well enough to keep it for a long, long time.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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