The work-from-home culture is taking root in California

Even as pandemic lockdowns fade into memory, covid-19 has transformed California’s workplace culture in ways that researchers say will reverberate beyond 2022.

Working from home part of the week has become the new normal for a large portion of Californians, according to new data from the US Census Bureau. Data shows that high-income employees with college degrees are more likely to have access to this hybrid work model, while lower-income employees remain stuck 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 ravage workplaces, along with seasonal waves of influenza and other respiratory viruses. A number of studies have found that covid has taken its greatest toll in low-income neighborhoods, whose workers were considered essential during the early pandemic lockdowns — farmworkers, grocers, warehouse packers and other service workers who continued to report in person to work.

In addition, the researchers say the change will affect the broader economy in ways big and small, as more employees have the flexibility to live away from the workplace and as workplace traditions like going out to lunch and going out to bars fade or evolve.

The U.S. Census Bureau interviewed roughly 260,000 Americans from June to October, including about 20,000 Californians, as part of a large-scale questionnaire called the Household Pulse Survey. The researchers 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 telecommuted or worked from home 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 last week.

Nationwide, 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 significant shift from previous Census Bureau surveys that asked about working from home, albeit under different conditions. In 2019, before the pandemic, about 6.3% of employed Californians and 5.7% of employed Americans said they “usually work from home.”

Researchers who specialize in workforce issues said the results mirror their own and are indicative of a cultural shift that will outlast the pandemic.

Jose Maria Barrero is an academic economist and co-founder of WFH Research, which documents the shift towards working from home. Before the pandemic, about 5% of workdays in the US were done from home, according to his group’s analysis. In contrast, his research this year shows that about 30% of work days in the US are now work-from-home days.

A 2022 Census Bureau survey found differences in the types of families adapting to hybrid work, mostly centered on income.

About 64% of California adults in households with annual incomes of $150,000 or more said at least one household member worked from home some part of the week. Nearly 40% of adults in these high-income households said a household member worked from home five days a week or more.

By comparison, only 15% of California adults in households with annual incomes of less than $50,000 said 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 facility,” Barrero said. “The types 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% 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 link between income and hybrid work has also been demonstrated at the national level. States with a higher proportion of high-income residents tend to have more workers who report telecommuting.

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 in the previous week. The median household income in each of those 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 those 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 diploma.

Gaps will have consequences.

Andra Ghent, an economist at the University of Utah who studies work-from-home patterns, said tens of millions of Americans are settling into “hybrid” arrangements, in which they work from home several days a week and occasionally go to the office. . Before the home-to-work option, she said, many didn’t want to live too far from the urban core, worried that the commute would become unsustainable. But with routine daily commutes, many will move to the suburbs or suburbs, where they will have more space, she said.

On the one hand, fewer trips to work, especially by car, are often good for the health of the environment, Gent noted. “But if people are moving to places where the usual mode of transportation is cars instead of something that’s more pedestrian-friendly or bike-friendly or more likely to use public transit, that’s not such a good thing,” Ghent said. “It kind of increases our urban sprawl, which we know is not good for sustainability.”

When higher-income people move away, cities lose a valuable source of tax revenue. This could exacerbate challenges in urban areas, as resources for social programs and infrastructure shrink. To avoid that fate, cities will have to make themselves attractive places to live, not just to work, Barrero said.

“What you don’t want to be is a city based on office towers, where 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 telecommuting also allows employers to seek employment 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 to employees overseas.

In addition, higher-income workers could see wages go up or down depending on where they live, Sytsma said. Well-paid workers in San Francisco will compete for remote jobs with lower-paid workers in places like Fresno, California, or Boise, Idaho.

“So we should start to see these wages go down in cities like San Francisco, New York and Seattle, where they’re already very 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 realized that they prefer to work from home — and that this gives companies an advantage to ask workers to accept less money in exchange.

He said his research also shows that today’s work models — for both home-based and office workers — 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 consistently 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.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.