A Work-From-Home Culture Takes Root in California

This article by Phillip Reese first appeared in Kaiser Health News, republished with permission.


November 23, 2022

While the fallout from the pandemic is long remembered, Covid-19 has reshaped California’s workplace culture in a way researchers say will continue beyond 2022.

Working from home for part of the week has become the new normal for a large segment of Californians, according to new data from the US Census Bureau. The data shows that higher-income workers with college degrees are able to access this hybrid work model, while lower-income workers continue to juggle their workplace responsibilities and daily work routines.

At the base level, these low-wage workers will continue to be at increased risk of infection and serious illness as new covid variants sweep through the workplace alongside seasonal waves of flu and other respiratory viruses. Most studies show that Covid has hit hardest in low-income neighborhoods, whose workers were considered essential during the early pandemic — farm workers, grocery vendors, warehouse packers and other service workers who continued to report to work alone.

In addition, researchers say, the shift will be dynamic in ways large and small across the economy as more workers become more flexible about commuting and workplace traditions such as lunches and bar nights disappear or evolve.

The U.S. Census Bureau interviewed nearly 260,000 Americans, including 20,000 Californians, between June and October as part of a larger survey called the Household Pulse Survey. The researchers asked dozens of questions about lifestyle changes in the pandemic era, including working from home.

The survey found that about 20% of California adults live in households where at least one person worked or worked from home five days or more in the previous week. About 33% of California adults lived in households where they worked from home at least one day in the previous week.

A nationwide survey found that nearly 30% of adults live in households where at least one person worked from home for part of the past week. About 16% lived in households where they worked from home at least five days in the previous week.

The results, though mixed in meaning, represent a significant shift from previous Census Bureau surveys that asked about working from home. In 2019, before the pandemic, about 6.3% of working Californians and 5.7% of working Americans said they “usually work from home.”

Researchers specializing in workforce issues said the findings are self-reflective and a sign of a cultural revolution that will transcend the pandemic.

José María Barrero is an academic economist and co-founder of WFH Research, which documents the shift to work from home. Before the pandemic, about 5% of the workday in the U.S. was spent from home, according to his group’s analysis. In contrast, its survey this year found that about 30% of workdays in the US are now work-from-home days.

The Census Bureau’s 2022 survey found differences in the types of families adapting to hybrid work, largely based on income.

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 part of the week. Nearly 40% of adults in these higher-income households reported that a household member worked from home five or more days per week.

By comparison, 15% of California adults in households with an annual income of less than $50,000 said a household member worked from home at least part of the week.

“If you’re a barista in a coffee shop or you’re working in a manufacturing plant, it’s very difficult for you to work remotely,” Barrero said. “The types of jobs that people with low education do are jobs that require their physical presence.”

There are also racial disparities. About 45% of California adults lived in households that identified as Asian and 40% identified as white, compared to 26% of blacks and 21% of Latinos.

The relationship between income and hybrid work was also present at the national level. States with higher-income populations had more workers reporting telecommuting.

For example, in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia, less than 20% of adults lived in households where at least one member worked from home in the previous week. Last year, the median household income in each of those states 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. Last year, the median household income in each of those states was between $71,000 and $91,000.

Differences were also grouped according to educational areas. About 56% of California adults lived in households with a bachelor’s degree 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.

Gaps have consequences.

Andra Gent, an economist at the University of Utah, said tens of millions of Americans are moving to “hybrid” arrangements, where they work from home a few days a week and occasionally go to the office. . He says that before home work, many did not want to live too far from the city core, worried that the commute would become unmanageable. But with daily commutes out of the picture, many are moving to suburbs or suburbs where they have more space, he said.

On the one hand, commuting less, especially by car, is good for the health of the environment, Gent noted. “But it’s not a good thing when people move to places where the usual mode of transit is the car instead of something that’s more pedestrian or bike friendly or more likely to take public transit,” Gent said. “It increases our urban sprawl, which we know is not good for sustainability.”

Cities lose a valuable source of tax revenue when high-income people move away. This can exacerbate the challenges in urban areas as resources for social programs and infrastructure are cut. To prevent this fate, cities must not only work, but become attractive places to live, Barrero said.

“What you don’t want to be is a city with office towers, and at the end of the day everyone leaves, and there’s nothing to do in the evenings and weekends,” he said. “Because that basically means that all humans can be remote or hybrid.”

The move to telecommuting allows employers to hire in other states or even other countries. Tobias Sytsma, an associate economist at the Rand Corp., recently authored a report on how U.S. companies can “offshore” remote work to overseas employees.

Additionally, higher-income workers may see their wages go up or down depending on where they live, Sytsma said. Higher-paid workers in San Francisco compete for remote jobs 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, New York and Seattle, which are already high,” Sytsma said, “and we’ll probably start to see them go up in more rural areas.”

Barrero said employers understand that many people prefer to work from home, and that allows companies to ask workers to take less money in return.

He says his research shows that today’s work patterns — both at home and at work — can endure for months or years.

“Our survey asked people, ‘Is this your employer’s long-term plan, or are you still waiting to implement part of the plan?’ we asked,” said Barrero. “And we consistently report that more than 80% of people are following a long-term plan.”

Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and associate professor of journalism at California State University, Sacramento.

This story was published by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an independent editorial service of the California Health Foundation.KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.

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