Even as pandemic lockdowns fade into memory, covid-19 has transformed the culture of California’s workplace in ways that researchers say will continue beyond 2022.
Working from home for part of the week has become the new norm for a large portion of Californians, according to new U.S. Census data. Data shows that higher-income workers with college degrees are more likely to access this hybrid work model, while lower-income workers stay the course with on-site responsibilities and daily commutes.
At a basic level, this means that low-wage workers will continue to bear greater risks of infection and serious illness as new variants of covid spread through the workplace along with seasonal waves of flu and other respiratory viruses. Several studies have found that covid has taken its toll on low-income neighborhoods whose workers were considered essential during early pandemic lockdowns — farmers, grocers, warehouse packers and other service workers who continued to report to work in person.
In addition, the researchers say this shift will ripple across the wider economy, both large and small, as more workers have the flexibility to live further from the workplace and as workplace traditions such as bar lunches and dinners disappear or they develop.
The U.S. Census Bureau interviewed roughly 260,000 Americans, including about 20,000 Californians, from June to October in a large-scale survey called the Household Pulse Survey. Surveyors asked dozens of questions about lifestyle changes during the pandemic, including some about working from home.
The survey found that nearly 20% of California adults lived in households where at least one person worked from home or from home for five days or more in the previous week. About 33% of California adults lived in households where someone worked from home at least one day in the previous week.
Nationally, the survey found that nearly 30% of adults lived in households where at least one person worked from home for some part of the previous week. About 16% lived in households where someone worked from home at least five days in the previous week.
The results mark a marked shift 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 worked from home.”
The researchers, who specialize in workforce issues, said the findings mirror their own and indicate a culture shakeup that will survive the pandemic.
Jose Maria Barrero is an academic economist and co-founder of WFH Research, which documents the shift to working from home. Before the pandemic, about 5% of workdays in the U.S. were done from home, according to his group’s analysis. In contrast, its surveys this year show that roughly 30% of workdays in the US are now work-from-home days.
A 2022 survey by the Census Bureau revealed differences in the types of families adjusting to hybrid work, mostly income-oriented.
About 64% of California adults in households with annual incomes of $150,000 or more reported that at least one household member worked from home some part of the week. Nearly 40% of adults in these high-income households reported that a household member worked from home five days a week or more.
By comparison, only 15% of California adults in households with an annual income of less than $50,000 reported that a household member worked from home at least part of the week.
“It’s very difficult for you to work remotely if you’re a barista in a coffee shop or you work in a manufacturing plant,” Barrero said. “The kinds of jobs that people with low education tend to do are jobs that require them to be physically present.”
There are also racial differences. Nearly 45% of California adults who identify as Asian and 40% of those who identify as white lived in households where someone worked from home part of the week, compared to 26% of black adults and 21% of Latino adults .
The connection between income and hybrid work has also been shown at the national level. States with a greater proportion of high-income residents tended to have more workers who reported working from home.
For example, less than 20% of adults in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia lived in households where at least one member worked from home last week. The median household income in each of these states last year was between $48,000 and $56,000.
By comparison, 35% or more of adults in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington lived in households where at least one member worked from home. The median household income in each of these states last year was between $71,000 and $91,000.
Differences 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 during the previous week, compared to 17% of California adults with only a high school education.
Gaps will have consequences.
Andra Ghent, an economist at the University of Utah who studies work-from-home models, said tens of millions of Americans are settling into “hybrid” systems in which they work from home several days a week and occasionally go into the office. . Before the option of working from home, she said, many people didn’t want to live too far from the urban core because they feared the commute would become unmanageable. But with the routine daily commute out of the picture, many will move to the suburbs or fringe neighborhoods where they’ll have more space, she said.
On the one hand, less commuting, especially by car, is often good for environmental health, Ghent noted. “But if people move to places where cars are the usual mode of transportation, instead of something that’s more pedestrian or bike-friendly or more likely to use public transit, that’s not so good,” Ghent said. “It increases our urban sprawl, which we know is not good for sustainability.”
As higher-income people move out, cities lose a valuable source of tax revenue. This could exacerbate problems in urban areas as resources for social programs and infrastructure shrink. To avoid this fate, cities will have to make themselves attractive places to live, not just work, Barrero said.
“What you don’t want to be is a city of basically office towers and 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 humans can be remote or hybrid.
The transition to working from home also allows employers to look for employees in other states or even other countries. Tobias Sytsma, an associate economist at the Rand Corp., recently wrote a report detailing how U.S. companies can increasingly “offshore” remote work with employees abroad.
In addition, higher-income workers may see their wages rise or fall depending on where they live, Sytsma said. High-paid workers in San Francisco will compete for telecommuting with lower-paid workers in places like Fresno, California, or Boise, Idaho.
“So we should start to see those wages go down in cities like San Francisco and New York and Seattle, where they’re already really high,” Sytsma said, “and we’ll probably start to see them go up in more rural areas.”
Barrero said employers are realizing that many people have found they prefer to work from home — and that this gives companies the ability to ask employees to accept less money in exchange.
He said his research also suggests that today’s work patterns — for employees at home and in the workplace — are likely to last for months and years.
“We had a question in our survey that asked people, ‘Is this a long-term plan that your employer has, or are you still waiting to implement part of the plan?'” Barrero said. “And still more than 80% of people say they are already following a long-term plan.”
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.
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