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The Covid-19 Pandemic Isn’t Making—Or Letting—Everyone Work From Home

Read more at www.forbes.com

Even while the nation struggles with vaccinations, we want to know if the Covid-19 pandemic has made permanent changes to the economy, with some observers assuming office work will increasingly be done at home.  But economists aren’t so sure—so don’t build your life and career on a future of permanent homework.  The pandemic is increasing telework, but not full-time.  And it also seems to be increasing pressure on working mothers and women with care responsibilities.

Teleworking increased sharply when the pandemic hit, with some estimates that over 40% of the entire workforce was homeworking. (It’s likely those estimates were too high, resting on the fact that so many non-homeworking people had lost their jobs entirely, with the resulting composition of all workers having a higher teleworking percentage.)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) now includes homeworking measures in its monthly employment survey.  The highest level they found was 35% in May, trending down to November’s level of 21.8%.  And that’s for workers doing any amount of telework, not full-time teleworkers.

Government surveys have found around 44% of workers could potentially telework, but the “takeup rate” for those actually doing so is only around 25%.  It skews towards higher incomes and education, with college educated workers teleworking between 2.2 and 2.8 times higher compared to those with only a high school degree.

That’s largely because the college educated group works in industries and occupations geared for teleworking.  Over 80% of jobs in finance and information services could be done remotely, compared to under 21% for construction and leisure/hospitality.  Not surprisingly, unemployment rates are significantly lower in high teleworking industries.

The role of industries and companies in deciding about teleworking has been underplayed in favor of narratives about worker choice; employers have a lot of power to determine who teleworks and under what circumstances. Again, many workers do not have a strong telework option, and those workers are disproportionately nonwhite and lower paid.

BLS survey of 150,000 firms asked about options for teleworking before and during the pandemic.  For companies with average annual wages below $20,000, 74% had no option.  For those with wages averaging between $20,000 and $40,000, 63% couldn’t telework.  But for firms paying an average over $80,000 per year, only 17% lacked teleworking options.

We’ve known about these teleworking patterns prior to the pandemic.  The federal government, for example, has a strong teleworking program across its agencies.  In FY2018, 42% of federal workers were eligible for teleworking, but only 22% did at least some work at home, about half of those eligible. (Again, full-time teleworking is very rare.  Most teleworkers combine at-home and in-office working.)

BLS itself has a lot more telework than most agencies.  And during the pandemic, it is 100% working out of the office!  But it illustrates the type of organization that can telework.  It is data-driven and staffed by higher educated professionals, and already had high levels of telework pre-pandemic.

In FY2018, 88% of BLS employees were eligible to telework, and almost all of them did some.  Compare that to 9% at the US Customs and Border Protection agency, whose workers are on the front, in-person lines of travel and commerce.  The nature of the job sets the possibilities for teleworking, not employee preferences.

fascinating panel at this month’s professional meetings of economists shed more light on telework.  One study from researchers at MIT used three Google
GOOG
consumer surveys to document a sharp increase in telework during the early stages of the pandemic, but some revived commuting in their July survey.

The MIT study confirmed telework as more common in professional occupations, while also finding women “were more likely to report switching from commuter to work from home status.”  Due to care responsibilities, women are making this switch, along with dropping out of the labor force altogether.

Gender effects also were documented in a study on the wage impacts of teleworking by Sabrina Wulff Pabilonia and Victoria Vernon.  They found that “men receive (a) premium for home-based work, (but) women do not.”  For those only teleworking occasionally, there was a “wage premium for all except mothers and men without children,” leading them to conclude that “telework won’t close the wage gap” between men and women.

These gender effects from increased telework are part of a longer-term, more complicated story about how working women, especially mothers, juggle the demands of career and family, trying to avoid a “mommy track” that slows their career progress.  Sociologist Kathleen Gerson has documented these problems for years, while showing how our current child care and family care policies, institutions, and business practices are out of date.

So there likely will be more teleworking after the pandemic, but not a dramatic shift away from offices. Employers will allow some teleworking for some professional and higher paid occupations, but there won’t be a wholesale shift to full-time teleworking.  And if teleworking slows down occupational advancement due to diminished professional networking, on-the-job learning, and proximity to the boss, that could hit women harder even as they use telework to balance work-family responsibilities.

Read more at www.forbes.com

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