ST. PETERSBURG — Annie Lesso presses a buzzer and a door opens, revealing a short staircase into a dimly lit corridor. Here, back in the bowels of the Hilton, she's groveling for a job.
Her severance package is gone. Her unemployment benefits won't last forever. She's wondering how to buy her kids Christmas.
A lady pokes her head out from a glass window: "Can I help you?"
For Lesso, she is like a life preserver in an open sea. The job market has moved to cyberspace, a desolate place where resumes are dumped into inboxes by the hundreds and words are rarely spoken. Lesso has sent out nearly 200 resumes. She hasn't heard back from anyone.
Lesso, 45, explains how she lost her job Oct. 1 as a manager at Frontier Airlines. Budget cuts.
"I've had two months with nothing," she says. "This is one of the few places I could come in and apply."
Tanya Giles, the hotel's human resources manager, nods sympathetically.
"It has to be really rough out there," Giles says. "We get 30 people a day."
Lesso's jaw drops. "Thirty people a day?"
• • •
More than 22,700 jobs have been lost since September 2007 in the Tampa Bay area, the hardest-hit area in the state. On Thursday, Congress extended employment benefits for the toughest job markets by an additional 13 weeks.
Lesso, who will get $275 a week for the next few months, took the news as you'd expect.
"Yeah!" she said.
A widow with two children, she likes to think of herself as a self-sufficient woman. She was in the airline business for nearly two decades when she was laid off. One day, she was earning $45,000 a year. The next day, a Frontier Airlines manager in Orlando had absorbed her job and Lesso was writing a resume.
At first, she thought she would have no problem. But as weeks turned to months, she realized she was in trouble. As an airline manager, she ran a budget, managed contracts for customer service and baggage handlers and oversaw the daily operation of flights.
But the airlines aren't hiring, and everyone wants specific experience that she doesn't have.
"I guess a lot of it for me is eating a little piece of humble pie," she said this week as she sat at her computer searching for jobs.
"Ah, Dress Barn. Okay, I know about dresses," she says, clicking on the post.
"Hmm, multistore management experience. Well, I don't have that."
She applies anyway.
She has applied to Panera Bread and Publix, Tech Data and Raymond James. Wal-Mart. Target. Aveda. PricewaterhouseCoopers. Home Shopping Network. You name it.
The low point came when she learned that an administrative assistant post received 75 applications in its first day.
"I started realizing there are a lot of people like me," she says.
She recently approached her church about starting a jobless ministry, where those in need could pray and perhaps hook up with those who might offer jobs.
"What really sustains me is my faith — that I will get a job," she says. "What this is for me is a lesson in waiting, because I almost feel powerless in my ability to get in front of a human being."
• • •
Lesso lives in a two-story house in the Uptown neighborhood with hardwood floors and a $1,200 mortgage. Earlier this year, she paid off her credit cards and ripped them up.
Still, even without credit card debt, Lesso is struggling. The sacrifices are starting to pile up.
She only buys necessities. No more Starbucks. Cable TV is gone. The family no longer has health insurance and Annie's applying for food stamps. She's starting to think about peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.
She worries about her kids, Marino, 6, and Madi, 14.
"It's not their fault I'm unemployed, and yet they have to walk the journey with me," she says.
Marino says it's "very hard." No more SpongeBob on Nickelodeon. "I'm kind of scared," he says.
Madi, a freshman at St. Petersburg High School, doesn't like to go to the mall anymore because she can't afford to buy anything.
The experience has taught Lesso to reach out. Earlier this week, she e-mailed her church, St. Paul's Catholic Church.
"I was wondering if there is any way that my sweet 6-year-old son could get a toy from the tree that you put up in the church," she wrote. "My 14-year-old daughter bravely told me that she didn't need any gifts this year."
The other day a friend asked her out to eat. She told him she couldn't afford it. He offered to pay. After they had eaten, he handed her a $100 bill to pay the bill. When she handed him the change, he insisted she keep it.
"I tell you, that was so hard for me to do," she said. " 'No I can't,' is my normal reaction. But I did. And so I tell myself that someday when I have a job, I'm going to give back."
• • •
This past Wednesday, Annie stared into the mirror from a chair at Cameron Hair. Her dark roots had been driving her crazy, so she had called her hairdresser and asked for help.
"I'm unemployed," she'd said, "but could you just do my part?"
It was a familiar refrain. He told her to pay what she could. Now here she was in front of him and he had given her the full-throttle highlights and low-lights, something she paid $100 plus tip for in the past. She struggled with what to give him.
"I love it, Cameron," Annie said as he dried her hair. "Maybe it will get me a job."
She handed him $60 and walked out the door, feeling guilty.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.