The shock of the pandemic has spared no one, but the costs have not been evenly distributed. Office workers who can telecommute have generally been able to retain their income, while many blue-collar workers who have to be on site to work are among the tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs as the country went into lockdown.
Now, as states struggle with lifting shelter-in-place rules that would allow the most economically vulnerable to return to work, new research shows that people in low-wage jobs are more likely to work in close proximity to other people, and thus face increased risks of exposure to the novel coronavirus than people in high-paying jobs.
When the pandemic shut down the campus at the University of Chicago, economists Jonathan I. Dingel and Brent Neiman had to pivot to teaching remotely. Stuck at home learning to navigate Zoom, they wondered how many other people were experiencing the same upheaval. Their curiosity led them to collaborate on a paper for the first time: “How Many Jobs Can be Done at Home?”
Their analysis became a launching point for two other economists at the university, Simon Mongey and Alexander Weinberg, who worked with Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Laura Pilossoph to explore the broader economic impact of the pandemic and draw a picture of the types of workers who would struggle the most.
Collectively, their research proves with data much of what had been known only anecdotally: the disparate experiences of different classes of workers during the pandemic depended on their ability to work from home.