Published September 8th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Nothing changes Eric King’s workday – not even a pandemic.
He leaves his Brookside home before 5 a.m. for his job as chef manager at the University of Kansas Health System.
King’s wife, Kristi, won’t wake for a while. And when she does, she’s already at work.
Since the pandemic began, she has been working remotely as a plan administrator for American Century Investments.
The Kings are witnesses to a tectonic shift in the workforce caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some can work remotely from home with colleagues in other cities and time zones, others in industries such as health care, hospitality, retail and services must be on site to do their jobs.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that in July, 46% of employees in management, business and financial occupations were teleworking because of the pandemic. In contrast, just 5% of employees in the services industries were teleworking.
That, in a nutshell, is the great divide in the American workforce.
Eric King has a resume rich with restaurant jobs – including operating and owning eateries. And during the pandemic he has seen many restaurant friends lose their jobs and businesses.
“I was very grateful to have a job, to have a place, to have a purpose,.” King said.
His purpose – providing food that can give both nutrition and delight to patients – is incredibly rewarding. There were, however, times that King was jealous of his wife and his friends who could work remotely.
After a particularly hard day at work, his wife said something that really stuck with him.
“She said ‘Listen, you get to go to work every day. I don’t get to see my peers, my coworkers. I don’t get to have that interaction with my boss.’
“Nothing has really changed as far as getting up and going to work every day,” King said of his job. “We are still here. We still see our peers. We are doing this work and having this impact.”
King is clearly in the majority at the University of Kansas Health System, where about 11,000 of a total workforce of 14,000 are working on site, said Jon Jaffe, vice president of human resources with the health system.
Even before the pandemic, departments like human resources, marketing and finance were away from the main patient care center. Working remotely was already in the workplace lexicon.
“If you are trying to be attractive to your workforce you have to provide some flexibility,” Jaffe said. “We were already having discussions of trying to allow people to work from home at least part-time.”
Jaffe said a remote workplace does have obvious recruiting advantages – attracting talent that might not want to move.
“The benefit for us today is we have employees who live in Florida, we have employees who live in Nebraska, we have employees who live in Tennessee that work for the health system,” Jaffe said. “We have been able to retain or hire some people where traditionally we might not have been able find an opportunity for them.”
Sometimes, though, changes have to be made by those who work on site.
Lindsay Moore left her full-time job as a respiratory therapist at Overland Park Regional Medical Center this summer to work in Topeka where she lives with her husband. Moore continues at Overland Park Regional as what is called a PRN, meaning she will fill in for people who are on vacation or when the extra help is needed.
“As much as I love my job, I was getting up and leaving home at 4:30 a.m. and there were nights I wasn’t getting home until 8 or 9,” Moore said.
Hearing people complain about pandemic shutdowns was difficult.
“As a health care worker I just wanted a break,” Moore said. “I wanted a little down time. I would have loved a little down time.”
Moore said there is a great pull of purpose for health care workers.
“Deep down we can’t just be at home when we know we could be somewhere helping someone,” she said.
Last year, economists Jonathan I. Dingel and Brent Neiman studied data from the Occupational Information Network and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research called: “How Many Jobs Can Be Done at Home?”
They found that 37% of U.S. jobs can be performed entirely from at home. They also found that those jobs account for 46% of all wages.
Not surprisingly, there were marked differences between where people live and what they did for a living.
For example, the study found that more than 45% of jobs in San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C., could be done at home. Meanwhile, only 30% or less of the jobs in Fort Myers, Grand Rapids and Las Vegas could be done at home.
Terrence Wise knows this divide well. He has worked the last 20 years in the fast-food industry.
Wise is a leader in the “Fight for $15,” a movement that advocates raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Even though he worked full time, his family has struggled financially – frequently facing hunger and homelessness. Feelings about economic disparity have been heightened by the risks involved in working in a frontline service job during a pandemic.
“We’ll be out risking our lives, whether it’s a pandemic or not, to go to work and provide the services that keep this economy going,” Wise said.
Despite improvements in technology, Wise thinks service-based, in-person jobs will be a part of the future workplace landscape.
“Folks will be out there on the front line doing their jobs,” Wise said. “People want that human experience – people to be there to take their order and greet them.”
Shelly Freeman of FineLine HR Consulting in Kansas City agreed. Service jobs are needed, although there might be shifts.
That would include, for example, shifts of jobs from a shopping mall to a distribution center, and shifts of jobs from a cash register to delivering items curbside.
“The work has to be done, the products are moving, it is a question of where it happens,” Freeman said.
Rachel Priest has interviewed twice with SailPoint Technologies, a tech company in Austin, Texas.
Her first time was a year ago when the tech industry was overwhelmed with available talent.
“When I started looking for another job this summer it was just the opposite,” she said. “Everyone is hiring and they don’t care where you work, or where you live or whether you can come into the office or not.”
So even though Priest lives in the Kansas City area, she could pick a great job with an employer 700 miles away.
“They have completely changed their vision. It doesn’t matter where their workforce lives.” she said. “I felt very, very fortunate.”
Besides being able to work remotely, there can be another important advantage.
Priest said these larger, mature companies are located in technology hubs like New York, San Francisco and Austin.
“Their salaries are incredibly competitive,” Priest said. “A lot of Kansas City companies can’t even match their salaries.”
Clearly, there are savings working remotely.
“It saves so much money on the wear and tear on my car,” Priest said. “Most days I don’t have to dress up, I don’t have to wear make-up. It saves on my professional wardrobe.”
Priest said many employers will provide remote workers laptops, monitors, keyboards and even money for an office chair.
Despite the advantages, there are challenges.
“I have to be intentional in setting up time to get to know people,” Priest said. “If I didn’t do that, it could be very isolating.
“I am putting a lot of time on people’s calendars saying, ‘Hey let’s get to know each other’.”
Priest hopes she is able to have a hybrid work style where she might go to the Austin headquarters or meet with clients once or twice a quarter.
“I think in-person meetings with clients are super important,” she said. “You get such a better read on their environment, on who they are as people.”
Freeman, the human resources consultant, said it is important for employers to be sure employees working remotely are taking breaks. Working without vacations could create burn out so severe an employee will simply quit.
“We are going to have to be much more conscious about putting barriers and boundaries about how much we will work,” Freeman said. “Employers who are more successful are reaching out to their folks and saying ‘We need you to take some time off, we need you to unplug for a while.’
“The concern before was remote workers aren’t going to do anything. They are not going to be productive. What we are finding out is they are too productive and you have to tell people to stop working.”
Freeman thinks remote work is likely here to stay, although a more long-term structure for most workplaces of the future is a hybrid of remote and in-person.
“It’ll never go back to where it was before,” she said.
Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.