Even if pandemic lockdowns are remembered, Covid-19 has transformed California’s work culture in ways that researchers say will reverberate well beyond 2022.
Working from home part of the week has become the new normal for a large portion of Californians, according to new data from the US Census Bureau. The data shows that high-income employees with college degrees are more likely to have access to this hybrid work model, while lower-income employees with on-site responsibilities and daily commutes stay the course.
Basically, this means that low-wage workers will continue to be at greater risk of infection and serious illness as new strains of Covid sweep through construction sites alongside seasonal flu and other respiratory viruses. Multiple studies have found that Covid was taking its greatest toll in low-income neighborhoods whose workers were deemed essential during the early pandemic lockdowns – the farm workers, grocery workers, warehouse packers and other service workers who continued to report to work in person.
Additionally, researchers say the shift will have an impact across the economy in ways big and small, as more employees have the flexibility to live further from a workplace and as workplace traditions like lunch trips and bar nights fade or evolve.
The US Census Bureau surveyed approximately 260,000 Americans, including about 20,000 Californians, from June through October as part of a broad questionnaire called the Household Pulse Survey. The reviewers asked dozens of questions about lifestyle changes in the pandemic era, including some about working from home.
The survey found that nearly 20% of California adults lived in households where at least one person had telecommuted or worked from home for at least five days in the previous week. About 33% of California adults lived in households where someone had worked from home at least one day in the previous week.
The nationwide survey found nearly 30% of adults lived in households where at least one person worked from home for part of the past week. About 16% lived in households where someone worked from home for at least five days in the previous week.
The results mark a notable change from previous Census Bureau surveys that asked about working from home, albeit in different terms. In 2019, before the pandemic, about 6.3% of employed Californians and 5.7% of employed Americans said they “usually work from home.”
Researchers specializing in human resource issues said the findings mirror their own and suggest a cultural upheaval that will outlast the pandemic.
Jose Maria Barrero is an economist and co-founder of WFH Research, which documents the shift towards working from home. Before the pandemic, his group analyzed about 5% of workdays in the US from home. In contrast, this year’s surveys show that about 30% of workdays in the US are now home office days.
The 2022 Census Bureau survey found disparities in the types of families adapting to hybrid work, which is primarily income-focused.
About 64% of California adults in households with annual income of $150,000 or more reported that at least one household member worked from home part of the week. Almost 40% of adults in these high-income households reported that one household member worked from home five days or more a week.
In comparison, only 15% of California adults living in households with an annual income of less than $50,000 reported that one household member worked from home at least part of the week.
“It’s very hard for you to work remotely if you’re a barista in a coffee shop or you work in a manufacturing facility,” Barrero said. “The types of jobs that people with little education tend to do are jobs that require them to be physically present.”
Racial differences also exist. Almost 45% of California adults who identify as Asian and 40% of White live in households where someone works from home part of the week, compared to 26% of Black adults and 21% of Hispanic adults.
The connection between income and hybrid work also played out nationally. States with a larger proportion of high-income residents tended to have more workers who reported telecommuting.
For example, less than 20% of adults in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia lived in households in which at least one member had worked from home in the previous week. The median household income in each of these states ranged from $48,000 to $56,000 last year.
In comparison, at least 35% of adults in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington lived in households in which at least one member worked from home. The median household income in each of these states ranged from $71,000 to $91,000 last year.
The disparities also clustered along educational lines. About 56% of California adults with a bachelor’s degree lived in households where someone worked from home at least one day in the previous week, compared to 17% of California adults with only a high school degree.
The gaps will have consequences.
Andra Ghent, an economist at the University of Utah who studies work-from-home patterns, said tens of millions of Americans are settling into “hybrid” arrangements, where they work from home a few days a week and occasionally go to work go office . Before the work-from-home option, she said, many didn’t want to live too far from the city center for fear the commute would become unmanageable. But as routine daily commuting is no longer an option, many will move to the suburbs or outskirts where they will have more space, she said.
On the one hand, less commuting, especially by car, is often good for the environment, Gent noted. “But when people move to places where the usual mode of transportation is the car, rather than something that’s more pedestrian or bike-friendly, or more likely to use public transit, that’s not so good,” Ghent said. “It kind of reinforces our urban sprawl, which we know isn’t good for sustainability.”
When higher-income people move away, cities lose valuable tax revenue. That could exacerbate challenges in urban areas as resources for social programs and infrastructure shrink. To avoid that fate, cities need to make themselves attractive places to live, not just work, Barrero said.
“What you don’t want to be is a city of office towers where everyone leaves at the end of the day and there’s nothing to do in the evenings and weekends,” he said. “Because that means basically all people can be remote or hybrid.”
Migration to telecommute also allows employers to seek employment in other states or even other countries. Tobias Sytsma, Associate Economist at Rand Corp., recently authored a report detailing how US companies are increasingly being able to “outsource” remote work to employees abroad.
In addition, higher-income workers’ wages could rise or fall depending on where they live, Sytsma said. High-paying workers in San Francisco will compete for remote jobs with lower-paying workers in places like Fresno, California, or Boise, Idaho.
“So we should see those wages go down in cities like San Francisco, New York and Seattle, where they’re already very high,” Sytsma said, “and we’ll probably start to see them go up in more rural areas.”
Barrero said employers recognize that many people have noticed that they prefer to work from home – and that this gives companies an opportunity to ask workers to accept less money in exchange.
He said his research also suggests today’s work models — for both home and on-site employees — are likely to last for months and years.
“We had a question in our survey that asked people, ‘Is this your employer’s long-term plan, or are you still waiting to implement part of the plan?'” Barrero said. “And time and time again, more than 80% of people say they’re already following the long-term plan.”
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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