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I’ve seen many articles online over the last few years written about the pros and cons of employee telecommuting programs. There are extreme opinions on this topic with those in favor pointing to measurable increases in employee productivity, (job) engagement, (life) satisfaction and retention. In contrast, the opposite camp claims telecommuting disrupts communication between team members and negatively impacts a company’s ability to be agile and innovative (IBM, Yahoo). In reality, there is truth to both sides of the argument with one outweighing the other depending on the industry and job type.
Despite the attention telecommuting receives from workplace strategies leader Global Workplace Analytics and others, there continues to be limited access to remote work programs across the spectrum. Data indicates that approximately 4 million Americans (about 3% of the workforce) currently work from home at least half the time, up 115% since 2005. However, only 7% of U.S. employers allow some or all of their workforce to telecommute. Most U.S. organizations remain tethered to the assumption that managers need to actually see their employees working for work to get done.
In contrast, companies like Buffer, Flexjobs, Toptal and MySQL (Forbes, March 2016) embrace the 21st century notion that performance should be assessed through results, not attendance. Buffer employees in particular “utilize a vast array of collaboration apps and tools to engage with each other in a way that makes distance an equally or more effective way to work” (Ritika Singh, December 2015, Harvard Business School – Business Initiative). Despite being 100% remote, Buffer is as agile, innovative and successful as a traditional co-locating company.
Attitudes like those of Buffer’s founders represent the beginning of an important shift in corporate policy. More importantly, they open avenues for job-seekers in at-risk or underemployed populations who may find it challenging to identify, win and maintain a traditional on-site position that can accommodate their unique needs. Such populations could benefit greatly from work-from-home opportunities. Flexible, remote options may be just the solution for seniors struggling to stay afloat, military veterans learning to re-acclimate to civilian life and individuals with disabilities or chronic conditions who may find it challenging to work a typical 9-5 job. The potential rewards for the groups in question could be life-changing.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) reports over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure and live at or below 250% of the federal poverty level ($29,425/year for a single person). In addition, millions of other older adults struggle to meet their monthly expenses, even though they live above the federal poverty level and are not considered “poor.” Older adults are faced with job loss or underemployment, rising housing and medical costs, diminished savings (if any), inadequate nutrition and a lack of access to transportation. Lingering debt, increases to Medicare premiums and decreases in social security distributions have had a distressing and lasting impact on seniors’ quality of life.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) documented nearly a half million older adults aged 55-64 and 168,000 aged 65+ who wanted to work but were unemployed 27 weeks or longer in 2014. The statistics are even more discouraging for female older workers and older workers of color. NCOA notes that older women received about $4500 less annually in Social Security benefits compared to men in 2014; older African American men were twice as likely to be unemployed as older Caucasian men (BLS).
Clearly, something needs to be done to help America’s seniors create a more stable, financially secure retirement. One solution may be to increase senior access to flexible, work-from-home job opportunities. Applicants in the 60+ range bring a wealth of experience with them to the job market, are typically beyond the family-planning-and-expanding stage, and may be more likely to be open to part-time work than younger applicants if they are collecting monthly Social Security or pension income.
Many of our veterans find it difficult to find civilian employment once they leave the military. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that up to a fifth of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD. Percentages vary by service era and exposure to “horrible and life-threatening experiences” (www.ptsd.va.gov). Veterans also may have a difficult time translating their military experience into civilian-world job skills and finding meaningful careers (www.washingtonexaminer.com).
While there are more than 45,000 non-profit organizations in the U.S. with a mission at least partly related to serving the needs of veterans, not all deliver the superior results our veterans deserve. However, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, working in conjunction with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring our Heroes, is one organization trying to smooth the path to employment for veterans. The Bush Center launched the Veteran Employment Transition Road Map in 2015, a free resource that breaks down a job search into phases and is designed to help veterans navigate and succeed in the civilian workforce. The Bush Center also works to address the challenges caused by post-traumatic stress and change employer attitudes about hiring veterans with this injury (the Drop the “D” effort).
Veterans, particularly those suffering from post-traumatic stress or receiving treatment for it, may benefit from the flexibility of telecommuting. Veterans leave the service skilled in various areas like being a team player, excelling when under pressure, following directions and attention to detail. He or she is also likely to be loyal, disciplined and a proven leader. These are traits that would benefit any company. Telecommuting offers veterans the opportunity to pursue a career while adjusting to civilian life, work around medical or mental health treatment that may be needed, and find professional satisfaction outside the military.
A May 2017 blog post by Flexjobs discusses the very real challenges military spouses face in finding, maintaining and progressing in a career. Military spouse employment is impacted by service member job demands, family responsibilities, lack of childcare, location-related licensing problems, employer bias and frequent moves. As a result, the unemployment rate for military spouses is over four times higher than the national average.
It’s no surprise then that more than half of military families list spouse under/unemployment as a source of strain and barrier to financial security. Spousal employment struggles also impact individual opinions of military service in general. Survey results from the Blue Star Families’ 2016 Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicate that military spouses who are able to pursue a career, and are, therefore, happier, are 36% more likely to recommend military service to others.
This is an ideal population for companies to draw from when seeking remote employees. Military
spouses are an educated, employable population. According to the Department of Defense, more than half of all military spouses have some college credits, 21% have four-year degrees and 8% hold graduate and professional degrees. Military spouses are capable and they want and need to work to help support their families.
Remote work would solve many of the employment challenges military spouses face. Working from home offers the flexibility needed to balance job duties with family responsibilities, would offset the impact of service member reassignment and would allow military spouses to find the professional fulfillment many currently lack.
Individuals Living with a Chronic Condition or Disability
There are many conditions and injuries that fall into this category, both formally and informally. Roughly 20 million Americans meet the government’s criteria for being considered ‘disabled’; about a fifth of them collect SSI benefits. However, disability benefits do not provide a livable wage: more than a quarter of people aged 21-64 years with a disability live below the poverty line. While more than thirty percent (35%) of individuals with a disability are employed, only 22% work full-time. In addition, nearly 10% of disabled persons who want to work continue to seek suitable employment opportunities (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
In comparison, there are millions more who suffer from conditions that may not qualify them for disability benefits. People who suffer from issues like chronic migraines, depression, IBS, seizures and other conditions may not qualify for government assistance; they may also not be able to pursue traditional, full-time employment. For some, working a typical on-site job may be a challenge at the best of times.
Telecommuting is the obvious solution for many living with a disability or chronic condition. Unfortunately, while some employers have flex-work policies that allow employees to work from home as needed, many others limit or fail to offer this option. However, a valid argument can be made that working from home may be ideal for individuals with limited mobility, physical disabilities, mental health conditions and other chronic diseases. A look at the positions currently available on Flexjobs.com and RatRaceRebellion.com indicates there are many companies hiring for both full- and part-time positions and freelance gigs. The flexibility and convenience inherent to working from home may be just what this population needs to find employment that not only allows them to support themselves and provide for their families, but accommodate issues that would otherwise interfere with their ability to work.
Individuals with Extreme Debt
Millions of Americans are living with extreme debt. Students who have financed a college education and patients with and without insurance find themselves buried under an ever-growing mountain of principal, fees and interest that impact their quality of life, life decisions and retirement options. In a February 2017 article, Forbes reported that student loan debt is now the highest consumer debt category, behind only mortgage debt, and is higher than both credit card and auto loan debt. Medical debt also continues to be a big problem in the U.S. and for years was the number one reason people filed for bankruptcy. According to a 2016 study by the National Bankruptcy Forum, roughly 20% of American adults have difficulty covering their medical bills, even with insurance coverage.
Student loan debt. According to Make Lemonade, there are more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. The average student of the Class of 2016 graduated with more than $37,000 in student loan debt; more than a quarter of graduates left school with what can be considered “excessive debt.” As of Q4 2016, the New York Federal Reserve reported a student loan delinquency or default rate of 11.2%. These numbers are shocking, but do not tell us much about the impact of this level of debt on graduates, current students or those weighing their options as they decide where – of if – to attend college.
A January 2016 article by Time reports that “student loan debt is increasing because government grants and support for postsecondary education have failed to keep pace with increases in college costs.” This shifts the burden of paying for college to families as the government no longer carriers its fair share of college costs. Students then must make the decision to either borrow more or redefine their expectations and goals. Notably, there has been a shift towards attending lower-cost colleges with students opting to forgo attendance at pricey private universities for public colleges or shifting from 4-year to 2-year programs. As a result, there has been a steady decline in the number of low- and moderate-income students who earn a bachelor’s degree.
There can be lasting impacts of excessive debt on students’ lives. They may be more likely to postpone major life events such as buying a home, getting married or having children. Excessive debt may also influence employment plans by causing students to look outside their field or work more than one job. Students with high loan balances with degrees in non-lucrative fields may also be more likely to feel their undergraduate education was not worth the financial cost (Time, 2016).
Graduates burdened by student loans must find a way to repay their debt consistently and as quickly as possible. Some solutions are already in place to help graduates who are struggling including loan refinancing, consolidation and forgiveness. Another option is to earn supplemental income through a part-time remote job or freelance gigs. Working from home is a flexible option that would allow graduates to move towards solvency without adding to commute time, detracting from personal responsibilities or further limiting participation (too much) in personal life activities.
Medical debt. Despite the reach of the Affordable Care Act, there are some states that have not
expanded Medicaid, leaving millions of Americans still without insurance coverage. For others, insurance plans offer thin coverage with high premiums and deductibles. The result is that millions are still struggling with medical debt, forgoing care or prescriptions and using extreme measures to try and pay off massive medical bills. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-in-five working-age Americans with insurance have problems paying medical bills; among the uninsured, 53% reported difficulty with making payments.
Work-from-home jobs and freelance gigs offer individuals with medical debt the opportunity to boost their income and take bigger chunks out of their debt. Telecommuting offers workers the flexibility to be available for personal responsibilities and activities while moving their households toward solvency. Earning additional income may also allow for more consistent medical and dental care and less reliance on credit cards to cover emergency, prescription and procedure costs.
Stacy LeFevre writes about work-from-home opportunities, pay inequity, workplace issues, current events and anything else she finds interesting or frustrating for Onlinesurveysbyajbc.com, the online arm of A. J. Baron Communications.
A J Baron Communications has been in business since 1994. Over the last two decades, AJBC has evolved from providing virtual support services to small businesses and independent contractors to developing and executing internal research projects for companies of all sizes. AJBC also consults with organizations interested in starting or improving a telecommuting program and consumers seeking traditional work-from-home employment or legitimate paid survey opportunities. For more information about AJBC, research services or work-from-home opportunities, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest or learn more here.
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