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The rise of remote work hasn’t been even across all Wisconsin counties

Metro areas see more remote work, while areas rich in manufacturing lag

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The COVID-19 pandemic created a boom of remote work. But the rise hasn’t been even across Wisconsin’s counties and could worsen preexisting inequities, according to a new report from Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The report, released Thursday, found 14.8 percent of Wisconsinites over 16-years old worked remotely in 2021. Dane County and Milwaukee’s suburbs had the largest share of people working from home, while counties more reliant on manufacturing and the service industry tended to lag behind.

About 24.4 percent of Dane County residents worked from home in 2021, followed by 21 percent in Ozaukee County and 19.6 percent in Waukesha County. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of Manitowoc County residents worked remotely, 8.3 percent in Rock County and 7 percent in Dodge County.

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Those discrepancies were primarily due to differences in the concentration of jobs that can be done remotely, according to Joe Peterangelo, a senior researcher at Wisconsin Policy Forum and the report’s lead author.

“They’re more concentrated in metro areas in general,” he said. “Manufacturing is the leading sector in several of the counties with the lowest rates of remote work.”

Portage County was the only county to exceed the state average that wasn’t located near a metro area, with 16.3 percent of its residents working remotely, the report said.

Peterangelo said Portage County has a strong concentration of jobs from the insurance and finance industries, and saw a boost from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

While many more Wisconsinites are working at home than in the past, the overall percentage of workers based at home trails the nation’s average. Peterangelo said that’s because Wisconsin has a higher percentage of people working in manufacturing, with 19 percent of its private sector workforce concentrated in manufacturing compared to the national rate of 10 percent.

“Obviously, not many manufacturing jobs can be done from home,” he said.

Remote work also could be exacerbating preexisting inequalities. Those who can work from home often have higher levels of education, higher incomes and better access to benefits, according to the report.

“Remote workers tend to have advantages over non-remote workers, just (from) the types of work that they tend to be in,” Peterangelo said. “From a racial equity perspective, Black and Hispanic workers tend to have less access to remote work than white workers.”

However, the report found that women in Wisconsin were more likely to work from home than men. About 16.6 percent of women worked remotely, versus 13.2 percent of men.

Peterangelo said the scheduling flexibility of remote work could be one of the reasons more women work from home than men.

“More flexibility in scheduling could be a real benefit for women in the workplace, who tend to disproportionately take on child care duties,” he said. “Having more flexibility for scheduling and being able to work remotely or hybrid for some of that time could help.”

Beyond the impact the shift toward remote work has had on employees, it also could change cities by reducing the demand for downtown office space in the state’s two largest metro areas, the report said.

“There’s also the impact that having fewer workers in downtowns and job centers has on the other businesses that rely on those workers, like restaurants, coffee shops (and) other types of retail stores that are near those downtown businesses,” Peterangelo said. “That could shift some of the demand from downtowns to other communities where the workers live.”

There’s also evidence that remote work may not completely go away, the report said. The share of people who worked from home at least once per week has remained relatively steady since mid-2021, falling by less than 1 percent.

In fact, the report said hybrid work arrangements — where workers spend time working in the office and at home — became the most common structure in early 2022 and became dominant by the middle of the year.

“There’s a good reason why hybrid arrangements have become so popular and have had staying power. And that is because workers like it, and it’s closer to what employers want,” Peterangelo said. “It is trying to balance those strengths of both remote and onsite work. It’s giving workers more flexibility, but also providing some of that opportunity for collaboration among workers.”

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