If you scrolled through social media, it would seem everyone is working from home in the wake of America’s coronavirus outbreak. There are “WFH fit” selfies, guidelines on how to set teleworking schedules, and tips on how to separate your work and home life. But like much of American life, this, too, is a segregated experience.
Even if you knew this intuitively, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute lays out the divisions in finer detail. In total, less than a third of employed Americans can work from home, and those divisions are split along racial lines.
Less than one in five black workers (19.7 percent) can telework, and for Latinx workers that rate is even lower—just 16.2 percent. Teleworking rates are highest among Asian American workers, at 37 percent, followed by non-Latinx whites, at 31 percent.
Not surprisingly, there are also sharp divisions by wage and industry. As the EPI data shows, take all wages in the U.S. and split them into four different groups, from highest to lowest, and you’d find less than 10 percent of workers in the lowest wage bracket can telework, while 61.5 percent of those in the highest bracket can. Americans working in the finance and professional and business services industries were most likely to work remotely, while people working in leisure and hospitality were least likely.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about how much people are able to telework. It’s actually quite a small share of the workforce,” Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, told CNN. “The vast majority of people can’t.”
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In the U.S., race, ethnicity, and work are intrinsically tied, Shierholz pointed out. Latinx workers make up a large share of construction jobs, and black workers are overrepresented in the service sector.
“It just comes down to the fact that in the United States there’s still a lot of occupational segregation by race and ethnicity,” Shierholz said.
This data illuminates some of the challenges in “flattening the curve” of coronavirus outbreaks. In the U.S., this means efforts to self-quarantine in order to protect against an exponential increase in coronavirus cases, which would overwhelm the country’s fragile healthcare system.
The data also points to the disproportionate impact a recession will have on black and Latinx households and communities—and that lawmakers need to apply robust measures in order to protect these communities.
Among the EPI’s suggestions is fixing “substantial loopholes” in paid sick coverage, since current coverage “will do little to help the estimated 3 million workers, including 900,000 leisure and hospitality workers, who will lose their jobs by this summer.”
The think tank also recommends the federal government greatly expand unemployment insurance benefits and sent payments directly to U.S. households; bolster aid to state and local governments; give tax credits to businesses so they don’t have to lay off workers; directly purchase medical equipment, testing research and technology to fight the virus; and to keep up these measures for the duration of the virus and the ensuing recession.