Harrop: Are we losing workplace gains along with workplace?

The move toward working from home may be eroding pay while increasing the demand on employee’s time.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

When I was a wee business reporter, I covered manufacturing in southern New England. Costume jewelry, a major industry then, has largely decamped to cheap-labor countries.

But I recall the vast differences in the quality of these mostly low-skilled jobs. At the top were great employers, offering decent wages and clean working spaces. From there, one descended to the sweatshops, some with puddles of nasty electroplating chemicals on the floor. At or near the bottom dwelled the home workers, people who would glue the backs of earrings to the fronts, often in their unventilated basements. They were paid by piecework, which meant by the number of earrings assembled, not hours worked.

If the COVID-19 lockdowns set in motion a permanent move of office work to employees’ homes, piecework could become more of the norm in the white-collar world. Forty percent of U.S. jobs can be done entirely from home, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the classic 9-to-5 office job, one is physically present for the eight hours and generally gets paid a set sum. If the bodies aren’t there, how can employers measure their worth other than the number of contracts signed, phone calls fielded or payments processed? And if there’s a slowdown in business, could they shrink their paychecks accordingly?

Piecework already exists in some skilled fields. Those providing phone-based tech support already get timed for minutes devoted to each customer.

Most doctors have long been paid in a piecework fashion, that is, per patient visit or hip replacement. But when medical care moves to telemedicine, more patients can be worked on in the same number of hours. The average time a doctor in the U.S. physically spends with a patient is supposedly 17.4 minutes. Physicians using telemedicine are clocking average “visit” times as low as 12 minutes.

There are undoubtedly advantages, financial and otherwise, to remote white-collar work. Employees don’t have to buy and maintain a spiffy office wardrobe. Some can economize on child care services. And there’s the time and money saved from not commuting to an office.

On the other hand, employees are paying for their own internet and office supplies. The more one’s job becomes permanently home-based, the more home space might be needed to do it comfortably. Sharing a kitchen table with a child’s Lego set would get old fast. And I don’t see employers paying for the extra square footage a respectable home office would require.

The work-life balance thing, meanwhile, gets shot to hell. It was already hard to manage when employees could be reached at home or campsite at any hour via email or text. What happens when email, text and videoconferencing become the only way of connecting employers to workers and workers to customers?

After all, 2 p.m. in Beijing is 4 a.m. in Casper, Wyoming. And Christmas is not a day off in Morocco, Japan or Cambodia. Surfshark, a provider of virtual private network services, reports new spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. The reason could be foreign business or job anxiety.

Without a formal quitting time, workers operating from home are never entirely “off.” Since the lockdown began, they’ve been putting in three more hours than before, according to NordVPN, which tracks its users.

A hit to income can take the form of lower paychecks or more toil for the same pay. Many companies hurt by these lockdowns are desperate to cut costs. What better way than to replace the 15 minutes wasted on the office staff’s coffee breaks with time to log in three more sales calls from the bedroom?

Where will this lead? Downward mobility is a strong possibility.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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