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As work from home becomes the new normal, employers need to consider its built-in inequalities, especially for women and minorities — and how they can help going forward. (Ketut Subiyanto photo)

Lisa Edmonds, a commercial real-estate adviser who lives in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, just had what she calls a “challenging” few days.

She had to take her 14-year-old son to two doctor’s appointments, her 12-year-old daughter to her orthodontist, as well as oversee her kids’ remote schooling and shuttle them to their activities — football, karate, dance — which have just started up again after being sidelined because of the pandemic.

All of this is on top of her regular work duties, which she has completed mostly from home since March. Her husband also is working from home. But while he works from an upstairs office with a door, she’s installed at a desk in the living room. It has more space and light than the upstairs office, but more interruptions too.

For her, these “challenging” days have become the norm rather than the exception since the coronavirus outbreak.

Many women will recognize themselves in Edmonds’s plight: Managing an all-day full household and her children’s virtual learning, all while trying to remain productive and visible during her remote work.

As the Covid-19 health crisis has accelerated the remote-work revolution, many in the U.S. — especially moms and people of color — are bearing the brunt of these new work-from-home burdens. At the same time, unequal access to computers and fast internet connections among lower-income households are hampering some workers’ ability to successfully perform their job remotely, experts say.

While some employees have welcomed the opportunity to avoid a commute and have more flexible hours, others have been pushed to reduce their hours or exit the workforce altogether, unable to handle the added strains.

How employers react to the inequalities that the health crisis – and by consequence remote work — has ushered in could affect the future of their companies and the workforce as a whole for years to come.

Remote work: a lifeline for some

To be sure, the ability to work remotely has saved many people’s jobs. A hotel manager can’t welcome guests while sheltering at home, but an accountant can still compute taxes from a home office.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, 2.6 million jobs were lost early in the outbreak because they could not be performed remotely (90 percent of the total employment decrease at the time). In general, studies have shown that more higher-income workers have been able to work from home than low-skill, lower-income ones.

“People in lower-income professions, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t have a job,” said Christine Beckman, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. This is just one aspect of the “deep inequality happening in the pandemic,” she said.

Internet inequality

Even those whose jobs were able to be performed remotely have suffered setbacks, sometimes insurmountable ones.

Though the technical and practical transition to remote work was fairly easy for many workers who had the option, others faced roadblocks. According to a December 2020 Pew study, three-quarters of those who were teleworking all or most of the time found it easy to access the technology, equipment and office space to do their job at home.

However, access to a computer and high-speed internet access was a critical factor in the ability to work from home. Another Pew study from 2019 found that an increasing number of people used a smartphone as their primary means of internet access.

Notably, race and income level affected whether Americans had computer and broadband access. Eighty-two percent of White adults had a laptop or desktop computer, compared with 58 percent of Black adults and 57 percent of Hispanics. About 25 percent of lower-income adults (earning less than $30,000 per year) had smartphone-only online access, while only 6 percent of those earning at least $75,000 were smartphone-only users.

Similarly, a quarter of Hispanics and Blacks did not have broadband access, compared with 10 percent of Whites.

In addition, a study conducted last year for the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that only 65 percent of Americans have internet that is fast enough to handle video calls.

Such internet inequality has become a headache for employers and human-resource departments during the pandemic.

Some employers have offered stipends for internet access or created wi-fi hotspots. Internet-service providers also may have access to federal funds that can help expand service in underserved communities.

Providing internet access may be money well spent, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who helped conduct the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta study.

Lack of fast internet may be a “time bomb for inequality,” he said. “Our results show that more educated, higher-earning employees are far more likely to work from home — so they are continuing to get paid, develop their skills and advance their careers. At the same time, those unable to work from home — either because of the nature of their jobs or because they lack suitable space or internet connections — are being left behind.”

Parents are struggling with childcare

When schools and workplaces simultaneously shut down because of the pandemic, parents were left scrambling to manage their children’s education and their own work. As schools switched to online learning, this necessitated parents’ involvement — especially with younger kids.

Women in particular have been disproportionately affected.

According to a Yale University-led study, mothers working remotely because of the pandemic spend significantly more time performing house chores than dads.

For example, mothers spend 49 minutes more per day on housework compared with telecommuting fathers, and those who telecommute one day a week lose $660 a year in potential earnings due to time spent on housework, it found. That translates to more than $2,600 a year for those who telecommute four days a week, the study said.

The report also found that telecommuting mothers spend 33 minutes more per day working than dads while their children are present. Moms also are more likely to report feeling depressed, anxious and lonely than dads, it said.

These study results “suggest that the unprecedented increase in telecommuting in response to Covid-19 has the potential to exacerbate gender inequalities in the formal labor market and the domestic division of labor, particularly when daycares, childcare facilities and schools are facing extended closures, increasing the already heavy burden of the pandemic on households,” the authors of the study wrote.

Beckman, who is the author, along with Melissa Mazmanian, of a book about work and family in the digital age titled Dreams of the Overworked, notes that “within the group of people who can work remotely, women are pulling out of the workforce at much higher rates than men.”

In fact, they are dropping out at four times the rate as men, according to a September analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Many women have childcare responsibilities that simply don’t allow them to both work and care for their offspring.

Long-term career consequences

A McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020 study found that that the Covid-19 crisis put the jobs of women, particularly women of color, in jeopardy, “stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security,” it said. “This is an emergency for corporate America unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

A Pew study on working parents during the pandemic found that parents who were working remotely all or most of the time and who had some childcare duties were more likely than remote-working parents who have little or no childcare duties to say that they could not give 100 percent at work.

Among those who had childcare responsibilities, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they had to reduce their work hours, were treated as if they weren’t committed to their work, had been passed over for a promotion or turned down a promotion.

The employee/C-suite disconnect

Although many employers are sympathetic to employees’ difficulties, there still seems to be a disconnect between employer policies and employee needs.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report showed that most employers believe they provided adequate childcare support, yet they underestimated the number of employees who left the workplace because of childcare concerns.

The McKinsey study cited employers’ lack of flexibility in compounding workers’ difficulties, with some employers applying pre-pandemic standards to job performance.

Employees are rightfully concerned about how the stresses of remote work during the pandemic will be reflected in their performance evaluations, according to Beckman.

“It’s unreasonable for organization to not acknowledge that if you go from 40 hours of school to zero, of course you’re going to get less work done,” Beckman said.

Meanwhile, workers with no childcare duties are being incredibly productive, she noted, adding that if workers with kids are penalized in terms of promotions and pay raises, this will only increase existing inequalities.

Since the pandemic began, 5.4 million women have lost their jobs, according to the National Women’s Law Center. As many as 2 million women are considering leaving the workplace, the McKinsey study found.

If women make a mass exodus, the McKinsey study states, “we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership — and far fewer women on track to be future leaders.”

Flexibility and support key

Successful remote work requires more than “giving someone a laptop and assuming they’re going to be happy,” Beckman said.  Still, she is a proponent of remote work — as long as it provides flexibility. But she makes a distinction between forced pandemic remote work and pre- or post-pandemic remote work.

“Eight hours of Zoom a day is not flexibility,” she added.

To be sure, some large corporations have stepped up during the health crisis with benefits for parents such as subsidized child supervision, online child tutoring, help with forming learning pods and pretax childcare spending accounts.

Beckman has a suggestion that goes beyond childcare, and which could benefit even the childless.

Silicon Valley tech companies are well known for having campuses with restaurants, gyms, dry-cleaning pickup and other services that enable employees to work more.

“If people are going to work from home, why not pay for someone to clean their house, deliver their groceries and pick up their dry cleaning?” she asked. If these services were useful while working in the office, they’re even more necessary when people are working at home with no infrastructure, she noted.

Still, for many people the most useful type of flexibility remote work could provide is the ability to choose which task to do where, which may have to wait until after the pandemic subsides.

“There’s actually something really nice about going into an office to escape your home life, going to a place where someone has made the coffee,” Beckman said.

Lisa Edmonds, the Pennsylvania mom, agrees.

After the pandemic, “I will continue to do some remote work, but I do like going into the office. … I do think I need to focus and concentrate on work, and not have the distraction of kids.”

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