When Access is About Staying Home: COVID-19 and Inequity

When Access is About Staying Home: COVID-19 and Inequity

Working from home
Typically, access conveys movement – driving to a job, walking to a store, taking a bus to school. But in the coronavirus era, being able to participate in the economy without leaving the house has become paramount.

This new model of access is exacerbating existing inequalities. While workers in some industries can stay home, log in, and still earn a paycheck, others are forced to choose between potential exposure to COVID-19 and unemployment. Analysis of the industries that are expected to see the lion’s share of layoffs and shutdowns suggests people of color, low-income individuals, and people in rural areas are disproportionately impacted.

Who Can Work From Home?

Unsurprisingly, people who work in information, financial activities, and professional and business services are most likely to be able to work from home. According to a 2017-2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, over 50 percent of people working in these industries said they could work from home. Industries with the smallest share of workers reporting they could work from home include leisure and hospitality; agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting; and transportation and utilities.

Figure 1 Ability to Work From Home by Industry

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from American Time Use Survey (ATUS) 2017-2018. Note: Mining, quarrying, and oil & gas extraction industry estimate was suppressed because it does not meet the ATUS publication standards.

Many (though not all) industries in which there is limited potential for working from home are among those most at risk from the pandemic. According to a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution based on Moody’s Analytics data, industries at greatest risk include travel, leisure, and hospitality, transportation, and resource extraction, including mining, oil, and gas. Given these projections, Brookings estimates that cities with energy-focused economies such as Midland, Texas, and tourism destinations including Kahului, Hawaii; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Las Vegas, Nevada, may be among the hardest hit. In a separate blog post, my colleague Adam Blair described how COVID-19 has already impacted the tourism-dependent community of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Rural areas have a lower share of workers in industries that are amenable to working from home as compared to urban areas, and therefore may also be especially hard hit by the pandemic. An additional challenge for rural areas is limited broadband coverage. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data shows that only 60 percent of people in rural areas have broadband access, compared with 97 percent of people in urban areas. This leaves 30 million Americans without broadband. Without broadband, people in rural areas are unlikely to be able to work from home, regardless of industry.

People reporting that they cannot work from home are also disproportionately Black and Latino. The Bureau of Labor Statistics survey showed that, based on responses from the 2017 to 2018 period, only 20 percent of Black or African American workers reported that they could work from home, compared with 30 percent of White workers and 37 percent of Asian workers. Only 13 percent of workers of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity reported that they could work from home.

High-income workers are also significantly more likely to be able to work from home than those earning the least. Among those with weekly earnings in the top 25 percent, more than 60 percent said they could work from home. This compares with less than 10 percent of people with earnings in the lowest quartile.

Figure 3 Ability to Work From Home by Weekly Earnings Level

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from American Time Use Survey 2017-2018

For those who cannot work from home, coronavirus has caused widespread unemployment. In the two months from mid-March to mid-May 2020, 38.6 million workers filed for unemployment. But many Americans are essential workers, continuing to work jobs in healthcare, as bus operators, and as cashiers and food delivery workers. Many of these workers risk being exposed to COVID-19 at work, and in some cases, these risks are compounded by lack of sick leave.

A New View of Access

Even before the spread of coronavirus, planners were evaluating the role of remote work and its impact on the environment and on local economic development. The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of remote work and the stark distinction between those who can and cannot work from home. Going forward, planners need to ensure that accessibility analyses evaluate online access and the ability to work remotely, and also considers which population groups lack access to these options. At EBP, we worked with the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop a measurement framework that includes access to broadband in addition to access to jobs, education, and medical care. We look forward to expanding this concept and developing metrics that can comprehensively evaluate access and address critical gaps.