Working from home in a COVID-19 world: Advantages and equity concerns

Young girl looking at her mother, who is working on a laptop
Photo: Shutterstock

Telecommuting has become the norm for many Minnesotans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote work has distinct advantages in these socially distanced times but also comes with equity concerns, as not every job can be done online.

Telecommuting soared in spring 2020, says Adeel Lari, director of innovative financing with the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Some highlights:

  • About 60 percent of Twin Cities workers telecommuted in May compared with 26 percent in March. Likewise, 48 percent worked full time from home in May vs. 12 percent before the pandemic. (Source: Metropolitan Council)
  • Trips to the workplace fell 32 percent throughout the state—and 45 percent in Hennepin County. (Source: Google mobility report, October 9, 2020)
  • Of the 218,000 downtown Minneapolis workers in February, just 12.5 percent were still working there in the summer. (Source: Minneapolis Downtown Council)
  • More than 70 percent of workers in the US who could work from home effectively did so. (Source: Federal Reserve)

In previous research, Lari monitored and evaluated eWorkPlace, a state-sponsored initiative for Twin Cities-area businesses that fostered teleworking. The initial goal of the multi-year initiative was to promote telecommuting as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion (see the May 2019 CTS Catalyst article). Since then, COVID-19 has renewed overall interest in teleworking and made the findings from the initiative even more relevant.

The main challenge today, Lari says, is that telecommuting is not equally available to everyone. Some jobs—such as those in retail, construction, and hotels—are impossible to do online. These jobs also tend to be the ones held by the 25 percent of the nation’s workforce with the lowest incomes.

In this downturn, telecommuting has enabled a significant economic rebound for the top 25 percent of income earners in the US, while those in the bottom 25 percent have experienced job losses topping 20 percent. In contrast, in the recessions of 1990, 2001, and 2008, the top and bottom quarters were affected at about the same rate. “This is not your father’s recession,” Lari says.

There are also telecommuting disparities by gender, race, and educational attainment. For example, more women are dropping out of the workforce than men.

Major companies such as Target have announced that many employees will work from home until the middle of 2021 or later—which means for some people, it will be at least 15 months away from the workplace. Other changes are happening as well: some banks are closing branches, telemedicine is growing, and automation is accelerating.

Lari discussed the research in a presentation at the CTS Research Conference on November 5. “The question I always get asked when I’m talking about this subject is whether this is a new normal or not,” Lari says. “Maybe it will form a new habit. Maybe it will be a new culture. We do not know for sure, but it is very possible.”

A new normal could have long-term impacts on vehicle-miles traveled, congestion, transit use, finance, and emissions. Strategies may be needed to overcome the impacts on women, minority communities, and those with low incomes and to sustain any environmental benefits. “We need to understand the work-from-home future and try to fully meet the transportation needs of all our users,” Lari says.

Writer: Sophia Koch