Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said the furlough experience could be traumatic.
“A furlough is a dangerous and risky bet because it severs the relationship between an employee and their compensation,” Dr. Bruno said. “A worker’s emotional reaction to a furlough takes control of rational thought.”
“It begins to look punitive, intentional or not,” he said.
Ms. Roberson and Mr. Becht were among the few people interviewed for this article who were willing to allow their names to be published. Others asked to have their names and workplaces withheld out of fear of retribution from bosses or colleagues. And some were hesitant to complain openly about their employment situation, given how many of their friends and family members had lost jobs.
“You’re not sure what they’re watching,” one furloughed man, an online salesman in Chicago, said about his bosses. “Do some people feel that they have to work those hours? Yes.”
And as more people are laid off or placed on unpaid leave, the burdens rise for those left at their desks.
Mr. Becht, who has managed to take two of his eight furlough days, said he was often overwhelmed on the front line dealing with customers at the motor vehicle office. He works about an hour of overtime a day to keep up with the crush of customers. Work is more stressful than ever, he said.
“I really don’t blame the management at our local level,” said Mr. Becht, who took a 9.2 percent cut in pay several months ago. “I understand they can’t let three or four people off when you’re already understaffed.”
But of the furlough, he added: “It’s not doing what it was designed to do. We were imagining three-day weekends. There was some optimism. It was a trade-off for sure, but people were O.K. The mood now, I would say, is down. People are working in fear because they don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
To make extra money, Ms. Roberson teaches belly-dancing at girls’ birthday parties on weekends, something she has been doing more of lately.
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“I really try hard not to even check my e-mail on furlough days,” she said. “That would be cheating myself, because I’m not getting paid to work.”
Karen Ann Cullotta contributed reporting from Chicago, and Malia Wollan from San Francisco.