What happens when the government shuts down and you’re put on furlough?

Events might unfold like this: You’ll be asked to come into work for a half day. You’ll get a short speech about how you’re furloughed, which means you are not to come into work and that you won’t be earning a paycheck. You’ll be told to watch the news for any updates on the government shutdown. You’ll be asked to spend the next few hours tying up any loose ends at your job. Finally, you’ll go home and wonder if the government will solve its budget problems before you run out of money.

That’s basically how it happened for Tom, who works for the Social Security Administration.

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Working on disability claims, Tom is one of the few employees at the Social Security Administration who has been deemed “non-essential” since the government has gone into partial shutdown, leaving nearly 800,000 individuals without pay. It’s unknown how many of Chicago’s 52,000 federal government employees have been furloughed, but many would consider any amount as too many, especially for a city with, as of July, an unemployment rate of 11.2%.

“Uncertainty is the most bothersome part,” Tom says, not comfortable with the fact that his livelihood has been reduced to keeping track of the news.

So far, watching the news hasn’t helped Tom. At first, he thought he could be back to work within a day or two. Since then, his opinion has changed with the news cycle. Sometimes, he says he “feels like it could be taken care of any day now.” Other times, the things Tom is watching and listening to make him worry the government shutdown could go another week.

Watching Tom oscillate between optimism and worry makes it easy to see why the uncertainty is the worst part. The lack of a paycheck weighs on Tom too. He has credit card bills to pay and rent is due. As a precaution, he’s decided to apply for unemployment. Since government employees can’t apply online, Tom visited the Unemployment Office on Thursday. It was so packed it seemed unlikely his number would actually get called. Thursday night, determined to do something while he’s furloughed, Tom said, “I’m planning on camping out at unemployment tomorrow morning.”

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Tom thinks he has a good understanding of the partial shutdown.

“It seems to hinge entirely on Obamacare,” Tom says, citing the Affordable Care Act.

Most would agree with Tom. A major sticking point with the budget is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a law separate from the current government funding legislation. In fact, the ACA has already gone into effect despite the government shutdown. Republicans have insisted on using the budget to modify the Affordable Care Act, refusing to pass a budget without added stipulations that would delay it. Democrats, on the other hand, refuse to pass a budget with these stipulations. While the Democrat-led Senate has actually been able to pass a spending bill without the ACA demands attached, there has been no such luck in the House.

“It feels pretty silly,” Tom says, talking about the deadlock in Congress. “It’s weird, because when you run through the ways to look at it over and over again, you sort of hope there’s a part you’re missing. It’s like looking at 2+2 = 4 and going, ‘Well what if it didn’t equal 4?’”

Instead of trying to pass an entire budget, the GOP-led House has been attempting to pass piecemeal spending bills, trying to restore funding for certain government services, but not all.

Democrats, on the other hand, are rejecting this approach. They’d rather restore funding to the entire government no strings attached – which means no changes to the ACA.

There seems to be little Congress can agree on.

“Of course, I’m angry at how it’s being handled,” Tom says. “But at the same time, finding some common ground would give me some peace of mind.”

Tom pauses for a moment, before going on, “And right now, I don’t have that.”