I’ve been working from home since mid-March, as has nearly everyone I know. If asked, I would have guessed something like 40 percent of those fortunate enough to still have a job were doing it remotely.
I would have been very wrong.
A blog post this week from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported that 20 percent of people with jobs before the coronavirus pandemic worked full time from home in August. That was up from 8 percent in February, before many states began telling “nonessential” workers to stay home to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
But nearly half of pre-pandemic workers commuted daily to their job last month, according to the data, which come from the Dallas Fed’s Real Time Population Survey, a research effort to track the economic impact of the coronavirus more quickly than with traditional government reports. Add in those who are commuting part of the week, and nearly two-thirds of workers are hitting the bricks.
(Sixteen percent of people who had a job in February are out of work, according to the data.)
The survey results didn’t surprise Alexander Bick, a professor at Arizona State University, who wrote the blog post with Adam Blandin of Virginia Commonwealth University and Karel Mertens, a senior economic policy adviser at the Dallas Fed. The trio created the real-time survey, which is released every two weeks.
“There has been a gradual shift to a larger fraction of the employed working at new jobs, i.e. jobs they haven’t held before the outbreak,” he said in an e-mail. “These jobs have very low work from home rates.”
My social circle is mostly white professionals in jobs with high work-from-home rates. We’re lucky to earn our paychecks in the part of the economy that can operate with e-mail and Zoom. We don’t have to take health risks by riding public transit, taking care of the sick in hospitals, serving meals in restaurants, or stocking shelves at Walmart.
No wonder I overestimated the percentage of remote workers. Cloistered in my privileged world, I don’t see the growing number of people who are back to their pre-pandemic routines.
Journalists aren’t the only ones with a high work-from-home rate. So are white-collar workers in professional and business services, government, education, and information services, according to Bick’s data.
It’s no coincidence that these sectors lost fewer jobs in the early months of the pandemic; many workers stayed home and continued to sit at a computer. Other industries — restaurants and bars, travel and leisure, and health care — saw huge job losses because once the customers vanished, so did the need for workers.
People of color make up a large chunk of the workforce in these hard-hit sectors, and if they got rehired or found new jobs, they had far less flexibility to work remotely.
The work-from-home rate for white employees was 26 percent in August, according to the survey data. It was 19 percent among Hispanic workers, and 9.4 percent for Black workers.
The inability to work from the relative safety of home is one reason Black and Hispanic people have higher COVID-19 infection rates than white people.
The disparity also cuts across education levels. The work-from-home rate for people with a college degree was 38 percent in August. For those with a high school degree or less, it was 11 percent.
Before the pandemic, the difference between Joe College and Joe Six-Pack was less than 1.5 percentage points.
I am writing this column from a cozy home office. My wife is working upstairs. We don’t expect this arrangement to change before the end of the year.
But even here, in my quiet quarantine, it’s clear that the pandemic is exacerbating the inequities that divide the country: inequities in wealth, in health, in the luxury to work unshaven and in gym clothes.