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Public health officials have urged Americans to hunker down at home to slow the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus, but for millions of workers in fields like dining, manufacturing and health care, doing their job remotely isn’t an option.
A new analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that just 37 percent of jobs in the U.S. can be plausibly performed at home, a percentage that varies drastically across different cities. For instance, 45 percent of jobs in San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C. could be performed at home. But that number dropped to 30 percent or less for cities like Fort Myers, Florida, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Las Vegas.
Researchers found a strong correlation between the ability to work remotely and high-wage positions. Jobs in finance, corporate management and professional and scientific services could be done remotely, while very few jobs in agriculture, hotels and restaurants, or retail could be.
“Due to COVID-19, many employees are unable to travel to work,” the researchers wrote. “Identifying which jobs cannot be performed from home may be useful as policymakers try to target social insurance payments to those that most need them.”
To reach their conclusion, researchers compared a national unemployment survey that asked Americans to describe daily tasks on the job — like whether they “work outdoors” or operate “vehicles, mechanized devices, or equipment” — and compared that with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about different industrial sectors. The numbers almost certainly overstate how many jobs can truly be performed from home because researchers applied the most liberal interpretation of job descriptions, they wrote.
According to a separate Bureau of Labor Statistics survey from 2017-2018, about 30 percent of American workers, or 41.6 million people, have the capability of working remotely. The divide is sharp within industries: Fewer than 10 percent of workers said they could do so in jobs described as “services,” “construction and extraction,” “installation, maintenance and repair,” “production” and “transportation and material moving.”
There also fractures along race and class lines: 37 percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of whites said they could work remotely, but 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics said they had the same ability. Among those with a college education or higher, nearly 52 said they could work from home. Just 4 percent of workers with less than a high school diploma said they could.
In March, leisure and hospitality accounted for the bulk of the job losses, with a stunning 459,000 vanishing from the sector, according to the Labor Department’s job report released last week. Food services and drinking places — one of the hardest-hit areas of the economy, as cities and states enforce strict stay-at-home policies — shed 417,400 positions last month.
The report, which was based on surveys conducted in the early weeks of the month, when large swaths of the economy had not yet shut down, does not fully reflect the depth of the economic calamity that the virus outbreak has inflicted. In the final two weeks of the month, 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, a stunning sign of the scope of the economic crash.