A year ago — when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic — millions of workers packed up their desks. Most expected a short hiatus and a return to work after "two weeks to slow the spread." For millions, however, things have turned out very differently. In fact, for individuals in more than a third of U.S. households, telecommuting is still replacing at least some in-person work.
Of course, not every job can be done from the comfort of home and certain workers are far more likely than others to be putting in their time from a home office.
We took a look at the latest U.S. Census Household Pulse survey to get a clearer picture of who's Zooming and who's commuting one year into quarantine. Spoiler alert: If you’re living in Washington, D.C., under age 55 with a bachelor's degree and a household income greater than $75,000, there's a good chance you're working in your PJs right now.
But, there's much more to the data, so let's dive in.
One year later - Who's still working from home?
As remote work has become the norm, more than half of all households — 53% — now have at least one person who works from home.
Of course, some work-at-home arrangements predate the pandemic.
However, more than a third of workers — 37% — indicate COVID changed their work arrangements and prompted them to shift some or all of their in-person work to remote work.
These "temporary" teleworkers — those forced into working from home because of the pandemic — are the workers we focus on below.
Washington DC leads the way for pandemic telework
Although the shift to remote work is a nationwide phenomenon, the extent to which remote work has replaced in-office work varies from state to state.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, more workers have gone remote in cities with aggressive policies to combat the virus and in locations where a substantial number of workers hold positions in the government or the information-sector. Washington, D.C. is the most notable example. The nation's capital has the country's highest percentage of COVID-related remote workers, with 60% of households in the D.C. metro area reporting at least one person still working from home.
Looking at the 15 most populous metro areas across the U.S., over 49% of workers are still temporarily remote in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and the New York City area.
By contrast, Riverside, CA has the lowest percentage of employees still working at home due to COVID, with just 35% of workers telecommuting during the pandemic. Miami and Houston come in a close second, with 38% and 39% of workers telecommuting. Work-from-home options may be more limited in these metro areas than in others due to a higher prevalence of jobs in trade, transportation, utilities, and hospitality.
In three states, half of all households have a telecommuter
The prevalence of remote work doesn't just vary between cities, it also varies by state.
In fact, in three states, more than half of all households still have a temporary teleworker. These include Utah, Massachusetts, and Maryland, where over 50% of households still report someone is working from home due to COVID — the highest percentage of all states.
By contrast, just 28% of households have a newly-remote worker in Kentucky, which is the lowest percentage of any U.S. state. Other locales with a surprisingly low number of temporary telecommuters include Wyoming (28%), Mississippi (28%), and Alabama (29%).
It's also been a year of empty trains and buses
For many employees new to remote work, avoiding a commute is the biggest perk. Of course, without these commuters, trains and buses have emptied out and ridership has dropped to unprecedentedly low levels.
The drop was dramatic and sudden, with the number of riders on New York subways falling to just 11 million the week of March 15, 2020 — a 59% decrease from 27 million who rode the subway the week prior. It was also persistent. In fact, the high water mark for ridership over the past year occurred when around 14 million people rode the subways in October — but the numbers declined shortly after.
This phenomenon was a bi-coastal one, with California seeing a 75% drop in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) ridership during the week of March 15, 2020. And, nearly a year later, the total number of BART riders still remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
The demographics of temporary teleworkers
As the pandemic forced certain companies to embrace remote work, the risk of contracting COVID-19 fell disproportionately on specific segments of the population: Those who do America's essential jobs, many of which come with low wages despite their importance.
The data makes clear that the more an employee earns, the greater the chances they’ll be doing their job from home. In fact, workers making upwards of $200,000 are more than five times as likely to still be teleworking compared with employees making under $25,000. Just over 72% of workers earning $200,000 or more shifted to remote work due to COVID, compared with just 16% of workers earning $25,000 or less.
Because many lower-wage jobs cannot be done remotely, the pandemic has had an outsized impact on Americans of lower socioeconomic levels. Lower wage workers are most likely to be back at work in person, least likely to have comprehensive health insurance, and least likely to have paid sick leave.
There was also a correlation between education level and the option to work remotely during the past year. More than 60% of employees with a college degree worked from home, while just 15% of people without a high school diploma were able to do so. This isn't surprising, as a college degree often opens the door to many of the best jobs, including white-collar jobs that can be done remotely.
Although older workers are more vulnerable to COVID-19, workers ages 55 and up were actually less likely to be working from home compared with their younger counterparts. Employees between the ages of 25 and 39 were the most likely to be telecommuting, with 47% of these workers still working from home, compared with just 35% of workers ages 55 to 64 and 17% of workers 65 and over.
Men vs. women
Surprisingly, there's no significant gender gap when it comes to who is still working from home, with men and women telecommuting in close to equal numbers.
However, while men and women are both at home, women were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Unemployment rates rose higher among women than men, and women were more likely to leave their jobs due to childcare issues or assume the dual burdens of working from home while caregiving.
Hispanic origin and race
Race also had an impact on telecommuting rates. Forty-nine percent of workers identifying as Asian and 38% of workers identifying as white indicated they are still working from home a year after the pandemic began.
Workers identifying as Hispanic or Latino were the least likely to still be working from home, with just 30% telecommuting temporarily.
Marriage and kids
Both single and married workers are telecommuting in similar numbers. Thirty-nine percent of married individuals are still working from home, and 41% of singles who never married are still telecommuting. However, divorced and separated workers were far less likely to be working remotely, with just 25% of individuals in this group still out of the office.
Households with children under 18 were also more likely to have someone working from home, with 39% of households that include children reporting that at least one person is still working remotely compared with 35% of households with no kids. This discrepancy could be due to the fact that people with children have sought out remote work arrangements as they cope with virtual learning.
As the pandemic moves into its second year, there's hope on the horizon for a return to normalcy — especially as a COVID-19 vaccine may soon be available to anyone who wants one. However, there are lingering questions around whether workers will return to the office due to the prevalence of remote work.
A number of large companies have already indicated they will allow continued remote work or give employees more flexibility in when and where they perform their jobs. This includes Salesforce, the largest employer in San Francisco. However, not all businesses have embraced this trend. In fact, the CEO of Goldman Sachs recently referred to working remotely as an "aberration," that they hope to "correct as soon as possible."
Still, with more than one-third of workers now having a year of remote work under their belts, it's all but certain a sizable number of Americans will never return to their pre-pandemic work arrangement. This could have implications for public transportation; for where people live; for office real estate; and for how workers interact with each other.
The shift to remote work could be one of the most substantial and permanent changes the pandemic has brought.
Telework data is from the Household Pulse Survey for the period of February 3-15, 2021, and includes responses from over 249,000 U.S. households. The Household Pulse Survey is a bi-weekly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with multiple federal agencies. The survey provides near real-time data on the social and economic effects of the Coronavirus on American households.
Transportation stats are from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation.