Not That Many Americans Can Actually Work From Home During The Coronavirus Outbreak

Telecommuting tends to be a luxury for higher earners. The nature of service jobs, in particular, can make it impossible.
Fewer than 1 in 3 American workers can telework.
Fewer than 1 in 3 American workers can telework.
JaruekChairak via Getty Images

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, more and more companies are urging their employees to work from home to help limit transmission. But that isn’t an option for many Americans.

Employees who can telework tend to be concentrated in higher-paying positions that require more education ― i.e., white-collar office jobs. In recent years, workers with advanced degrees were more likely than anyone to spend some time working from home. Those with high school degrees or less were the least likely, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That may partly be explained by the fact that workers with high salaries tend to receive better benefits and workplace flexibility. Being able to work from home is essentially a perk. But a lot of jobs on the lower end of the payscale simply can’t be done remotely, particularly in the service sector.

Overall, fewer than 1 in 3 workers have telecommuting as an option.

Take food service and hotels ― two of the industries that appear to be getting hit hard by the coronavirus. Restaurant servers and hotel housekeepers could never work from home for obvious reasons. Those who can work remotely in those industries would be the better-paid white-collar workers in corporate roles. The same dynamic applies for Uber, Lyft and much of the gig economy.

More than 60% of workers in management, business and finance had the ability to work from home at least some of the time in 2017 and 2018. About one-quarter of office and administrative employees were able to do the same. But among leisure and hospitality workers the share was less than 9%. Fewer than 1 in 30 workers in transportation could telework.

A lot of the industries with low rates of telework are the same industries with less paid leave. Of those workers in management, business and finance, 94% have access to paid sick days if they happen to be quarantined or need to care for a child whose school closed. In the service sector, only 58% had paid sick days.

Not surprisingly, there is a significant racial disparity in telework arrangements. Nearly 30% of white workers and 37% of Asian workers are able to work remotely, according to BLS. For Black workers, that share is less than 20%. For Latino workers, it is a mere 16%.

Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, said the telework data shows how many occupations still haven’t been integrated.

“There remains an enormous amount of occupational segregation by race and ethnicity in the U.S. labor market, and given that people of color are much more likely to be in occupations where telework isn’t possible, people of color are going to be much harder hit by this crisis,” she said.

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