Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people working remotely in the Madison area is the third-highest across the Midwest, according to a report released this morning by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The catch? The rise in remote work hasn’t been spreading equally across the state.
The report finds that although about 15% of Wisconsin workers are working remotely, not everyone has the same level of access to those jobs.
Where you live can dictate how easy it is to find a remote job. So can your industry.
In Dane and Ozaukee Counties, the largest portion of the economy is devoted to industries that can easily adapt to remote work, such as information technology and financial services.
Both Dane County and Ozaukee County have a higher percentage of remote workers compared to the statewide average.
Meanwhile, in counties where manufacturing jobs make up the largest portion of the economy, such as Rock County and Dodge County, remote work is below the state average.
Joe Peterangelo is a Senior Researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, and worked on this report. He says remote work is benefitting some, but not the people who may need it the most.
“Looking at it from an equity standpoint, you see that the sectors that tend to allow for remote and even hybrid work tend to employ people that have higher levels of education, tend to earn higher incomes, have better access to benefits like healthcare,” Peterangelo said.
In contrast, the report notes that industries less adaptable to remote work tend to be lower-paying by comparison, and are more likely to have greater representation of Black and Hispanic workers.
A 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that around two-thirds of jobs in industries like IT, finance, and other industries found in Wisconsin’s more metropolitan areas are jobs which can be done remotely, while less than one-fourth of jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, and construction can be done remotely.
Peterangelo says this could worsen existing divides.
“And then we also saw a national study that showed that workers who are required to be onsite for their jobs exclusively are more likely to be Black or Hispanic than those who are able to work remotely, partially or all of the time. So there’s some inequities there that we could be adding on to existing inequities that are already built in,” said Peterangelo.
On the other hand, increasing remote work can lessen inequalities for women, who are disproportionately likely to be caregivers, by improving balance between work and family.
Recent studies have found that working remotely can cut down on individual commuting costs related to gas and parking, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles.
Other studies have found increasing levels of employee disengagement and team dysfunction with remote work, with inconclusive results about productivity.
Though COVID-19 caused remote work to spike, the overall trend of remote work in Wisconsin had been rising for years before that.
The recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum speculates that, if this trend continues, it may lead to a change in how downtown economies are structured.
This trend could lead to a future where fewer buildings downtown are allocated to offices and businesses, and more space is allocated towards multi-unit housing. In contrast, residential neighborhoods could see an increase in businesses and higher real estate prices.
Peterangelo says that this is something he and his team have already started to see.
“There was some really interesting research recently in New York City showing how few employees are going into offices on Mondays and Fridays, and how that’s impacting their spending in Manhattan, and basically it’s having a longer-term effect on the businesses that depend on those workers. So we’re going to have to keep watching this to see how that’s affected but some of that demand has been maybe shifted from the downtowns and job centers to other neighborhoods and areas where those employees live,” Peterangelo said.
Also in the report: Madison is ranked 22nd nationally in the number of people working remotely, punching above its weight for being the81st most populous city in the nation. The City of Milwaukee, meanwhile, is ranked 45th for remote work, despite being ranked 30th in population.
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Erin Ashley.
Image Courtesy: Ian Harber / UNSPLASH