Working from home may sound great. No commute, comfy clothes, a pet by your side, what’s not to like! Save money on gas, save time, and stay safe from Covid-19, a workers’ paradise. Sixty-seven percent of those polled liked being at home, feel more productive and enjoy not having their boss around. But, despite all this, they still want to get back to the office. Clearly, there is more to the story.
Months into the pandemic, acknowledged unemployment is over 10 percent, the highest since 1940. And the proportion of the workforce working remotely soared to 35.2 percent by May according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. This transition disproportionately involved white workers since one-third of Black and Latinx workers had lost their jobs when the economy tanked earlier in the year. People of color are more likely to have essential jobs that require in-person attendance.
City College of San Francisco chemistry professor Bob Price sums up his experience. “I miss my co-workers and the students. It’s tough being so isolated.” Price went on to explain, “Normally, I know everyone in my class. We spend hours doing lab experiments together. Now, I create videos which the students view. It’s not interactive or the quality education I prefer. And it takes hours longer to prepare.”
The scorecard. It’s no contest who is coming out ahead by having employees stay at home — the bosses. Management saves on office leases, furniture, utilities, janitors, supplies, and insurance. All this increases the bottom line.
Since location is not an issue, some companies are hiring new staff in lower-wage areas of the country. A Gartner study showed that 32 percent of organizations are replacing workers with independent contractors, who are cheaper and often get no benefits.
Businesses are also eager to avoid paying for vacation, sick leave, retirement and medical benefits — a quarter of their labor costs. All to help big business recoup billions it lost when the economy collapsed. And busting existing unions, or stopping unions from forming, are also goals for many corporations.
Meanwhile workers carry the cost of creating home offices, providing internet and paying increased utilities. And that doesn’t even tackle the question of where to put the computer — the kitchen, bedroom, or, for the lucky few, a dedicated office space. What if two people need offices, or a couple of kids need space for school? It can be a logistical nightmare.
As telework goes on longer, poor ergonomics and stressful changes in routine can lead to exhaustion and illness. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that remote workers spent an extra four hours of unpaid work per week! The blurring of labor hours with family time may feel like living at work rather than working at home. It is no wonder that 69 percent of remote workers report burnout six months into the pandemic.
Another downside of telecommuting is the social isolation from co-workers. Being able to chat in the break room, or go to lunch or happy hour, compare notes on salaries and job conditions, witness and address discrimination — this is what builds labor solidarity and improves working conditions for all.
Moving forward. Employment from home could be great for those who need it if: equipment and other costs are paid for, schedules are flexible, childcare is available, and union protections are strong.
However, less than 4 percent of labor contracts include any wording on remote work conditions. Future agreements must include hours and wage protections, employer provided furniture and equipment, untaxed allowances paid for expenses of supplies and utilities and job security.
Telecommuting on this huge scale threatens wages, job security, health and the future of labor organizing. It is difficult to connect in private with co-workers to build solidarity and organize while isolated at home. Many, if not most, work emails are monitored. And this surveillance can put a damper on labor organizing efforts. Also meeting people in other areas of the company can be difficult in a virtual world.
The labor movement has to adapt, and it is. Gig workers have successfully found creative ways to talk and organize with a far-flung workforce.
Some unions are developing new ways of bringing workers together using every possible communication medium and in-person method. Joel Vancil noted that his union, PROTEC 17, hit the ground running with online meetings as soon as the pandemic sent everyone home to work, with attendance increasing over the months.
Meanwhile many workers are turning to unions for help in serious numbers to defend their jobs and futures. The Writers Guild of America East and United Electrical Workers have organized new units and are negotiating contracts at The Huffington Post, Gawker Media, and several Midwest colleges.
These member-driven campaigns are demanding that management provide protections for remote workers, stop attempts to cut healthcare and retirement and end contracting out.
Union membership is low, but approval of unions is at a long-time high. Now is the time for labor to strike while the iron is hot.