It’s been more than six weeks since Daniel1 last rode his bike to his office, where he works on the business operations team at a beverage company in the Pacific Northwest. At first he was apprehensive about working from home for the indefinite future, but within a few weeks he realized he was feeling more focused and productive than ever before. Even when restrictions are lifted on companies like his, he doesn’t expect to be spending a lot of time at the office. “I’ll go back for certain meetings if things start to reopen, but for the most part I think we’re going to be remote for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Daniel knows not everyone has that luxury. “I just keep saying to myself — I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve basically been able to continue working unaffected,” he said.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, the ability to work from home could turn into one of the most important markers of privilege for American workers.
According to a survey of 25,000 respondents fielded online April 1–5, more than 34 percent of people who were employed four weeks earlier reported that they used to commute to work, but were now working from home. Add that to the nearly 15 percent of respondents who said they were already working from home, and nearly half the country is teleworking.
But the ability to work remotely isn’t randomly distributed — it’s concentrated among people who are already more likely to have higher incomes and more stable employment.
In a recent working paper, economists Simon Mongey, Laura Pilossoph and Alex Weinberg created two metrics to understand which workers will be hit especially hard by the coronavirus crisis, using data from the Labor Department. The first measures the extent to which a given occupation can be performed from home, and the other measures the amount of close proximity to other people that the job requires.2 Sure enough, the jobs that are likely harder to do from home or are more likely to involve close physical proximity tend to be filled by people who are more economically vulnerable. For instance, jobs that are more difficult to work from home are disproportionately held by lower-income workers.
This research generally aligns with other recent studies that have found that the COVID-19 crisis has had a bigger economic impact on people with lower incomes and levels of education. That dynamic is now going to force many poorer Americans to choose between their safety and a paycheck as the economy starts to reopen.
One of those workers who could soon be facing that unpleasant calculus is Erica Harrison, who lost her job setting up displays at a department store in Louisiana last month. She was already struggling to live on $12 per hour, and spent the last few weeks scrambling to get her unemployment insurance payments set up so she could buy groceries and make her car payments. Now she finally has enough money to support herself — but a few days after her benefits started to arrive, her supervisor called to ask how she’d feel about coming back to her job if the store was able to reopen.
The idea of returning to work knocked her back on her heels. “It’s a terrifying thought because the risk of getting sick is so high,” Harrison said. “It’s literally my job to touch everything in the store — the fixtures, the mannequins, the plexiglass.” She lives with her mother, who recently recovered from heart surgery, so Harrison is especially concerned about spreading the virus to family members. But she had to take her supervisor’s question seriously. She lost her health insurance along with her job, and she’s wary of turning down work in the midst of a recession. And she would probably no longer qualify for unemployment benefits if she was offered her job back and chose not to return. “In my mind it pretty much comes down to: do you care more about your money or your health?” she said. “I wish there was a way for me to stay indoors and keep getting my paycheck. But that option is not available to me.”
The problem for Harrison isn’t simply that it’s impossible to do her job from home. Her job also involves close contact with other people, putting her at higher risk for contracting or spreading the virus if she did come back to work. She isn’t alone. The economists’ research shows that jobs that require close physical proximity are disproportionately occupied by poorer Americans.
And the workers who are disproportionately represented in both kinds of jobs are also more economically vulnerable. Many of the jobs where working from home is more difficult are held by workers without a college degree, and those workers are also overrepresented in jobs that require more face-to-face interaction. The same is true of lower-income workers, who make up more than half of workers in jobs where working from home is unlikely to be feasible and of jobs that involve closer proximity to other people.
This means that workers who were hit hardest by the economic shutdown are also disproportionately likely to suffer as the recovery unfolds. In places where the economy is being reopened more quickly, they’ll have to confront the prospect of returning to dangerous work before the virus is fully contained. In places where economic activity is remaining frozen for longer — or only only partially resuming — they may face longer-term unemployment if their employers can’t reopen quickly or fully. Unemployment benefits can be a salve, especially since the federal government temporarily boosted the amounts by $600 per week. But many Americans’ benefits have not been processed. And that extra money is currently scheduled to stop at the end of July. But the economy probably won’t be back to normal by then. “If the recovery begins by bringing back workers who are in jobs where they don’t have a lot of contact with other people, that will mean people in high physical proximity jobs will be hurting economically for longer,” Mongey said.
Of course, not everyone who has transitioned to teleworking is leading a charmed life. Daniel was almost apologetic about his good fortune — he’s young, with no kids and a well-paying job, leaving him plenty of time for Zoom catch-ups with friends and road biking. In some ways, his financial situation has actually improved. He and his partner are rarely ordering out for food, and he got a flood of refunds as races he’d signed up to run over the next few months were canceled.
But other workers, like Kyrie Martin, a high school math teacher in California, told us they can’t wait to get back to their old, analog workplace. “It’s maddening enough to try to teach AP Statistics remotely without my first-grade daughter coming in and playing hangman with the students on the whiteboard behind me,” Martin said. But she was quick to add how lucky she felt to still be working.
And Martin’s job as a public school teacher probably isn’t in danger of disappearing. As Harrison weighed her options, she was alarmed to see reports that big department stores like Neiman Marcus have been among the first economic casualties of the economic crisis. She wonders if her employer might be next, even if it manages to reopen. “If I’m questioning if it’s safe to come to work for a paycheck, who’s going to want to come in of their own free will to shop?” she said.
It’s not an irrational fear. After past recessions, some of the lost jobs didn’t come back when the recovery began — particularly lower-paying positions that don’t require specialized skills.
In the meantime, Harrison’s days are full of anxiety and boredom. “When this quarantine started, I tried to get up early, keep up a routine, stay productive, but that’s kind of fallen apart,” she said. “Pretty much my only regular activity these days is going to the store to see if they’ve restocked on Lysol.” When her unemployment benefits started to hit her bank account, she could at least stop worrying about covering next month’s car payment. But she’s not optimistic about what will happen when the economy begins to open up again. “When things start going back to normal, I think I’m going to end up sick or unemployed.”