Most people can’t work from home

| Deirdre Lockwood
Person with arm tattoos preparing burgers behind the counter at a restaurant.

Food service workers are some of the most vulnerable to job disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Unsplash

About 75% of US workers are in jobs that can’t be done remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, a new DEOHS analysis finds

Just 25% of US workers are in jobs that can easily be done from home, according to a recent study by Marissa Baker, assistant professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

That leaves 75% of us in jobs that are difficult or impossible to do remotely, according to the study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Such workers are at greater risk of job upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought about shelter-in-place orders and closures of businesses and schools.

“It's an important reminder that we have to protect workers because they are vital for us to get through this,” Baker said about the finding. “Even the people who can work from home—their jobs often depend on workers in the 75% who can’t. We're all interconnected.”

We recently chatted with Baker about her analysis and its implications for workers’ income, job security, disease exposure and mental health during the pandemic.

What motivated you to do this study?

This whole pandemic has been a stark reminder of how important the workplace is as a place for public health interventions.

Several data sources try to characterize who works from home, but they're getting at who is allowed to work from home under normal circumstances. In a public health emergency, that all goes out the window. I wanted to try to estimate the proportion of the workforce that can realistically work remotely, given the type of jobs they do.

How did you come up with your estimate of workers who can easily work from home?

The O*NET database maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has a lot of information on job characteristics and exposures reported by workers. Two metrics stood out to me: the importance of using a computer in the job and the importance of interacting with the public.

If you can do a lot of your work on a computer, then you can do it almost anywhere. If you're interacting with the public, you're probably not able to do that part of your job at home. So people who can do a lot of their work with a computer and don't rely on the public to complete their job tasks are likely the workers who are able to perform their job functions at home.

Graph showing the types of workers who can easily work from home and those who likely cannot.
All workers will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who can easily work from home (top left) face fewer job disruptions. Other workers will face a variety of disruptions that could be due to increased demand for services (health care), furloughs and layoffs (construction and manufacturing) or elimination of jobs and workplaces (food service). Source: Marissa Baker

You found that only 25% of workers fell into that category. Was that a surprise?

A sign in a shop window states that the store is closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retail workers are likely to face job disruptions because of business closures during the pandemic. Photo: Unsplash 

The fact that only about one-quarter are in jobs that lend themselves to being done at home is, I think, a shocking number.

The other 75% are likely to face job insecurity, job displacement or at least extreme job disruption during times like this. And they are potentially being exposed to disease through interacting with the public and other workers, and by taking public transportation.

What are some jobs in which workers are most likely to face these disruptions?

Particularly vulnerable workers are those with jobs that require interaction with the public and that don't require a computer. This accounts for about 20% of workers.

These are typically retail, hospitality and personal care services workers, such as food service workers and hairstylists. It also includes workers in transportation, particularly taxi drivers, subway operators, bus drivers and flight attendants.

They can't do their job duties at home. And if the public isn't utilizing their service, they're likely to have job reductions or potentially layoffs or furloughs.

What other challenges might these most vulnerable workers face during the pandemic?

Even workers who can keep working will face job disruptions. For example, with schools closed, it can be tough to provide care for children and also go to work.

DEOHS Assistant Professor Marissa Baker

A feeling of job insecurity can cause mental health conditions, and so can layoffs. Both are linked with depression and stress. Even if workers receive unemployment benefits, they may have a lower-paying job when they enter the workforce again because they haven't had an opportunity to keep developing skills that would put them into a similar or higher-paying job.

At-home workers tend to be in business, computers, engineering, finance and management--more highly paid occupations than food services and retail. So that further adds to the vulnerability of workers who can't work from home.

What recommendations do you have for policies that could help, especially for the most vulnerable workers?

The recently passed stimulus act tries to protect some workers who may typically fall through the cracks; for example, by providing unemployment benefits for gig economy workers.

Expanding paid family leave is important to allow workers to take time off to care for a child who may be home due to school closure and not feel pressured to actively look for a job, which might be required to receive unemployment insurance.

We need protections for all workers in terms of access to unemployment benefits and health care while they may be unemployed, including mental health services. These protections should be ongoing, not only during this pandemic.


Environmental health news delivered to your inbox monthly: