What's it like to be "non-essential"

People stand in front of the White House on September 30, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

On any other day, Joe James would be working as a microbiologist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We take samples from the environment, maybe agricultural versus urban versus what we would consider a natural environment, and then we sequence the DNA that we can get out of that sample," James says about his job. "And that tells us what the microbial community looks like."

But today was furlough day for more than 800,000 government employees.

"We showed up, and we have had meetings about this, so we opened our email, and we read our official furlough notice," James says. "From that point on, all we are to do is to secure our workstations and go about shutting down. So, we record a new voice-mail message ... and make sure that everything is ok for a prolonged shutdown."

The government shutdown means only 'essential employees' come to work. James, a scientist with the EPA, is not considered an 'essential employee.'

"It can hurt your feelings, to put it in elementary-school terms," James says. "It's part of the business, though. If you go into government, they've been shutting down the government for a long time, for a variety of reasons, and so you kind of expect it. But you're still disappointed."

Until Congress can reach an agreement, many government offices can't open their doors. That means people like James won't be getting paid.

His plan? Credit cards.

"I will put groceries and pretty much everything on my credit cards, and pay minimal amounts on my credit cards, and kind of accumulate debt," James says. "Just to keep the cash flow available, in case we really need cash for some reason."

The shutdown is not only a setback for his credit score, but it's a setback for his research, too.

"The work that I had planned to make, and the progress we had planned to make, did not happen," he says. "So that now gets pushed back as far as the shutdown lasts."

And that shutdown could last for a long time.

"They told us to be ready for a prolonged shutdown. What that means is up to interpretation obviously, and I think that was on purpose," James says. "My management does not know how long it will be, obviously because it depends on the decisions made in Congress. If anyone can predict those accurately, then they probably have a job doing so."

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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