Insights / Research BriefApr 03, 2020

Who are the Workers Who Cannot Work from Home?

Those who can't work from home are disproportionately nonwhite, lack a college degree, and have no health insurance, among other characteristics suggesting economic vulnerability.

Absent a vaccine or widespread testing,[1] “social distancing,” which requires employees in many jobs to work from home, is the best policy option to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This suggests that returning to work will likely occur more slowly for jobs that require a large degree of proximity to other individuals, such as those who work in closely arranged cubicles. So, who are the workers who do not have the opportunity to work from home and, therefore, are at greater risk of infection?

Building on recent work that describes the type of jobs that allow for working at home[2] and merging multiple datasets, the authors of this new research compare the characteristics of individuals in various occupations who cannot work from home to those of workers in occupations that can work from home. Individuals in occupations that cannot be done from home are:

  • economically more vulnerable,
  • less likely to have a college degree,
  • less likely to have health insurance,
  • likely nonwhite,
  • likely to work at a small firm,
  • likely to rent, rather than own, their home,
  • and more likely born outside the United States.

An understanding of how individuals vary across occupations, and the likely impact of such strategies as social distancing, is important for policymakers considering how to best target economic policies designed to assist workers.

[1] See related fact on this page and BFI White Paper in this series, “An SEIR and Infectious Disease Model with Testing and Conditional Quarantine
[2] See related fact on this page and BFI White Paper in this series, “How Many Jobs Can Be Done At Home?”