Income inequality and working from home

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COVID-19 has meant that more Canadians are working from home more than ever before. Working from home comes with a myriad of privileges by eliminating spending on commuting, giving workers more freedom to take breaks and make meals, and making it possible to wear sweatpants for every shift. But not everyone has been afforded these privileges. Many jobs, particularly jobs that are lower-paying, do not provide an option for employees to work from home. With COVID-19, that means lower-income workers who are already a vulnerable population, have been putting their lives on the line, while higher-paid workers have had the luxury of staying at home.

According to Statistics Canada, only about 40 per cent of Canada’s workforce has the option to work from home. That means the majority of Canadians do not have work from home feasibility. The survey also found that dual-earner families with higher earnings are more likely than lower-income families to hold jobs that can be done from home.

“54 per cent of the dual-earner families who are in the top decile of the family earnings distribution hold jobs in which both husbands and wives can work from home,” said StatsCan. Compare that to the only eight per cent of dual-earners in the lowest decile, and we begin to see a disparity.

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Tereca Whittingham is one of those workers who has not had the luxury of working from home. She is a part-time dental hygienist, and as she explained, working from home is simply not an option for her. “Through the whole COVID, I’ve actually been working because you can’t take teeth home with you,” she said. Her partner, who worked full-time as an arborist, was unable to continue working through the winter months, meaning Whittingham was the sole earner for her household through the most financially difficult months of the pandemic. “While everyone’s getting cozied up in pajamas, and working from home, I have to get cozy in an office,” said Whittingham. While she hasn’t been concerned about contracting the virus, she admitted that certain health measures can be difficult to accommodate. “The only frustration is the masks, because we have to wear the N95 masks,” she said.

Not everyone has been able to continue working through the pandemic, though. Also brought on by COVID-19 has been the dramatic loss of jobs. The start of 2021 opened with a staggering 213,000 jobs lost. StatsCan’s survey suggests that lower-income workers that don’t have work from home feasibility are more likely to face work interruptions amid COVID-19. The majority of jobs lost in January were in the food service sector, primarily with part-time employees. That means workers who were already struggling financially are now out of work, or are facing drastic hour shortages.

StatsCan also draws attention to the fact that “primary earners with high levels of education are more likely to hold jobs that can be done from home.” Less than 30 per cent of primary earners with a high school diploma can work from home, while 66 per cent of earners with a bachelor’s degree or higher education can do so. Education in Canada is a privilege that not all have been afforded, which creates an added disparity amid COVID-19.

While the popular discussion centres around the future of working from home, it’s important we don’t forget those who are excluded from that conversation. Canadians who were already at risk financially are now facing unprecedented struggles. While working from home does have its own host of complications (communication, higher electric bills), the loss of jobs and steady income from low-wage workers is on display now more than ever.