Opinion

Inequity Flourishes in a Widening Digital Divide

The global pandemic has driven pervasive change in the workplace at unprecedented speed. It has created a host of new problems and exacerbated longstanding ones. Businesses have been quick to address the most pressing challenges. The result is a workforce transformed, with some 40 percent of employees now working remotely as of June. But chronic workplace inequities have been left to fester: triaged, assessed as non-life-threatening, and, therefore, not worthy of emergency treatment. Left untreated, injustice in the workplace gives rise to other heritable ailments such as poverty, powerlessness, government-dependence, poor health and emotional malaise. The divide that now separates remote and non-remote workers has emerged as one more barrier to equity in the workplace.

Americans Want to Work from Home

In 2018, Global Workplace Analytics reported that just 3.6 percent of non-self-employed workers worked from home half- to full-time. Today the organization estimates that half of the American workforce could feasibly work remotely. And it turns out that workers want to. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 35 percent of employees would change jobs (and even take a pay cut) for the opportunity to work remotely full time. Working from home affords employees significant savings by reducing hours and fuel spent on commuting and by saving on childcare costs. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that remote workers save between $2,400 and $5,000 annually.

Racial and Gender Imbalance Within the Remote Work Trend 

The pandemic has demonstrated that working from home is indeed possible for more Americans than we thought. That’s a potentially life-saving privilege. But remote jobs are far less likely to be held by low- and minimum-wage workers who are employed in the hospitality industry, factories, meat-packing plants and other jobs that require in-person labor. These jobs are far more commonly held by minority and female workers. Moreover, internet access disparities along racial and gender lines create unequal opportunities for remote work. While 79 percent of white adults have broadband access at home, only 66 percent of Black adults and 61 percent of Hispanic adults do. Globally, there are 250 million fewer women who have internet access than men.

Women make up two-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage for remote work opportunities. According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, only about 9 percent of workers earning in the bottom 25th wage percentile hold remote-compatible positions. The bureau further reports that fewer than one in five black workers and approximately one in six Hispanic workers is able to work from home. Educational attainment also has a profound impact on the ability to work from home, with only 24.5 percent of high school-educated workers having access to remote work, compared to 67.5 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees. 

Public and Private Solutions

History tells us that eradicating systemic racism and sexism is a slow, complex battle. It will take vigilance, cooperation between private businesses and governments, and legislation. It will take innovative thinking and a significant financial investment to narrow the digital divide.

  • At a fundamental level, it’s time for the U.S. tech industry to step up and match the quality, universal availability and affordability of internet service that other nations provide. The best internet service providers in South Korea deliver broadband at four times the speed of their U.S. counterparts for significantly less money than U.S. consumers spend on lower-speed plans. 
  • High-speed internet service and communications technology should be guaranteed or at least subsidized for low-wage earners. This will not only improve the probability that these employees can transition to remote positions, but will also have a generational impact. Unequal access to broadband puts children, who now depend on remote learning, at a disadvantage. Technology companies, from manufacturers to internet utilities, would do well to partner with government agencies to make this investment. Tech-empowered children grow up to be better-equipped employees in a digitally-driven economy.
  • American workers may want to work from home. The pandemic has proven that many of them can. But possibility and preference don’t drive change — profit does. We will continue, as a nation, to work from home because businesses are discovering it’s cheaper to operate a remote workforce than a traditional one. According to Global Analytics, for each worker who works remotely even half-time, a typical employer can save upwards of $11,000. Financially speaking, employers in almost every industry could benefit by increasing access to digital technology for minorities and women.
  • Increased availability and subsidies for adult education in technology at community colleges and state-run universities would further improve low-wage employees’ chances of advancement in the digital economy. It’s incumbent upon human resource executives to prioritize digital workforce development, as well.  

Consideration for Non-Remote Workers

There are some jobs that will never be remote-compatible. Trash pickup will remain a door-to-door industry. Hospice workers will continue to hold the hands of the dying. The global pandemic has redefined the concept of “essential worker” for the millions of Americans who depend on them. “Essential” doesn’t just mean emergency anymore. And yet, many essential workers aren’t paid a living wage. Early childcare professionals, without whom the economy would grind to a halt, earn less than $11 per hour on average. The cashier who rings up your groceries probably earns about $20,000 per year. Many earn less — and have families to feed. With essential workers now exposed to greater safety risks, it’s unconscionable that we pay so many as if they were expendable. Our nation needs to examine how we value work. The growing discrepancy between the minimum wage and a living wage needs to be resolved and wage scales should reflect what we claim to value. 

 

Susan Doktor is a journalist, business strategist and principal at Branddoktor LLC.

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