Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Teleworking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted on by Abay Asfaw, PhD

New research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) examined racial disparities in teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic and estimated the extent to which these disparities are explained by education, occupation and racial discrimination.

Teleworking, also known as telecommuting or virtual working, is an alternative type of work arrangement that uses information technology to allow workers to perform some or all their work from home during paid work hours with no personal contact with co-workers or customers[1-4]. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworking helped protect eligible workers’ safety and reduced job losses and the use of unemployment benefits [5-7]. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that teleworking could significantly reduce the probability of testing positive for COVID-19 [8]. In May 2020, 38% of U.S. workers were teleworking due to the pandemic [9]. Across Europe, in 2020 the percentage of workers who teleworked at least occasionally increased from 11% to 48% during the pandemic [10].

Research has shown that teleworking has been lower among non-Hispanic Blacks (Black workers) and Hispanics than non-Hispanic Whites (White workers) and non-Hispanic Asians (Asian workers) in the United States [6, 11, 12]. Even before the pandemic in 2019, Hispanic and Black workers were 50% less likely to telework regularly compared to White workers [6]. In May 2020, 24% of Hispanic workers and 31% of Black workers teleworked due to COVID-19, compared to 41% of White workers and 51% of non-Hispanic other/multiple race workers [9]. In August 2020, the share of Asian workers who teleworked was three times higher than the share of Hispanic or Latino workers who teleworked [13].

One possible explanation for racial disparity in teleworking is differences in education, particularly in college education. The education–race literature shows that although some improvements have been observed in the past two decades, there are still wide racial gaps in test scores, involvement in gifted programs, and college graduation rates [14]. A review of literature conducted in 2003 showed that Black and Hispanic college students were less likely than White students to earn a bachelor’s degree or to specialize in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields [14]. Racial disparity in educational outcomes and professional achievements would affect the likelihood of teleworking, by influencing employment trajectories such as pay levels, titles, benefits, and positions.

Occupation is also strongly associated with likelihood of teleworking. Other research shows that during the pandemic certain racial groups are overrepresented or underrepresented in some occupations, relative to their share in the total workforce [15-18]. People of color were more likely to be employed in occupations with high potential exposure risk to infections [15]. Black and Hispanic workers were overrepresented in occupations with high potential risk of exposure to disease and inability to work from home [17]. Jobs in some occupations such as construction, agriculture, transportation, meat processing, and protective services cannot be performed remotely because it is practically impossible to perform the tasks at home. Hispanic and nonwhite workers are disproportionately employed in these occupations [19].

Our study, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Teleworking Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States: A Mediation Analysis” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health brought together these two factors, education and occupation, to estimate the extent to which they explained racial disparity in teleworking. We used the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, a nationally representative monthly survey that provides comprehensive data on labor force characteristics and other demographic information on the U.S. population. Data from respondents who were interviewed during May 2020 through July 2021 and were working during the survey weeks were used in our analyses.

Our study found that 22% of workers teleworked during May 2020 through July 2021. There were differences in the percentages of workers who teleworked by race:

  • 38% of Asian workers,
  • 24% of White workers,
  • 19% of Black workers, and
  • 14% of Hispanic workers teleworked during this period.

This study demonstrated that around 80% of the difference in teleworking between White workers and Black and Hispanic workers could be explained by differences in four-year college education and occupation. This finding indicated that narrowing the gap in four-year college education and reducing disparities in the distribution of Black and Hispanic workers in different occupations relative to their share in the total workforce could substantially reduce the gap in teleworking. For Asian workers, 64% of the total variation in the odds of teleworking was explained by four-year college education and occupation.

The study also examined the separate contribution of education and occupation to the total effect of race and ethnicity on teleworking. A four-year college education explained 25% of the indirect impact of race on teleworking for Black workers and 28% for Hispanic workers. The percentage of Black workers with a four-year college education was 27% lower than White workers. The percentage of Hispanic workers with a four-year college education was 51% lower than White workers.

Occupation explained more than 60% of the total effect of race on teleworking for Black and Hispanic workers.

  • Black workers were overrepresented in occupations not suitable for teleworking.
    • The share of Black workers was higher than their share in the total workforce by 104% in healthcare support, 66% in transportation and material moving, 65% in protective services, and 12% in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations.
    • The odds for workers to telework in these occupations were between 99% and 80% lower than for workers in the managerial (reference) occupations.
    • Black workers were underrepresented in all but one occupation (community and social assistance) with a higher likelihood of teleworking.
  • The odds of teleworking were more than 85% lower in all occupations in which Hispanic workers were overrepresented than in the managerial occupations.
    • The odds of teleworking in farming, fishing, and forestry (where the share of Hispanic workers was 134% higher than their share in the total workforce) and in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations (where the share of Hispanic workers was 115% higher than in the total workforce) were 96% lower than in the management occupations.
    • Conversely, in all occupations with a higher likelihood of teleworking, Hispanic workers were underrepresented.
  • In occupations in which the odds of teleworking were very small, the shares of Asian workers were also very low compared to their share in the total workforce, and vice versa.
    • In occupations for which teleworking was nearly impossible Asian workers were underrepresented by 73% in farming, fishing, and forestry; 56% in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; 38% in transportation and material moving; and 79% in construction and extraction than their share in the total workforce.
    • Conversely, in computer and mathematical occupations, for which the odds of teleworking were 2.5 times higher than in the managerial occupations, the share of Asian workers was 270% higher than their share in the total workforce.

The study also found that after controlling for variables, the odds for Hispanic workers to telework were 16% lower than for White workers and the odds for Black workers to telework were 7% lower than for White workers. The odds for Asian workers to telework were 13% higher than for White workers. These results revealed that the possibility of racial discrimination in teleworking could not be ruled out. Employers or managers might have been more reluctant to allow Black and Hispanic workers to telework than they were for White and Asian workers.

The results of this study also showed that there was no improvement in racial disparity in teleworking during the study period. The proportion of Black and Hispanic workers who teleworked relative to White workers remained the same during May 2020 through July 2021. This finding indicates that there may be no short-term solutions to the problem. Ultimately, reducing racial disparities in college education and distribution of workers across different occupations would be a long-term solution for reducing racial disparities in teleworking.


Abay Asfaw, PhD, is an Economist in the Economic Research and Support Office of NIOSH.



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Posted on by Abay Asfaw, PhD

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