Virus's impact: More relaxing and thinking, less socializing

Amy DiPierro
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San Diego — The eruption of COVID-19 last year caused the proportion of people working from home in the U.S. to nearly double, with the shift most pronounced among college graduates and workers in such fields as finance and professional services.

The share of employed people working from home shot up from just 22% in 2019 to 42% in 2020, the Labor Department said Thursday.

That was among the striking findings of an annual government survey that documents the far-reaching impact the viral pandemic has had on Americans’ everyday lives since it struck in March of last year. The American Time Use Survey details how people spent their time in 2020, from working to relaxing to sleeping. The survey participants, all of whom are 15 or older, are interviewed by phone about everything they did in a 24-hour period leading up to the interview. (For 2020, the report covered only May through December, after the virus caused the suspension of data collection earlier in the year.)

Because of the pandemic and the widespread social distancing it required, people on average spent more time last year sleeping, watching TV, playing games, using a computer and relaxing and thinking — and less time socializing and communicating in person — than in 2019. Adults also spent more hours, on average, caring for children in their household.

The survey also lends support to concerns that the pandemic worsened isolation for millions of Americans. With people working from home or attending school online, the time they spent alone increased. Among Americans ages 15 and over, time spent alone each day increased by an average of an hour. For those ages 15 to 19, it rose 1.7 hours per day.

Acommuter sits in an otherwise empty car on March 17, 2020, as he waits for the 7:58 p.m. train to Hudson to leave Grand Central Terminal, in New York.  The eruption of COVID-19  across the United States last year caused the proportion of people working from home to nearly double, with the shift most pronounced among college graduates and workers in such fields as finance and professional services.

Among workers with at least a bachelor’s degree ages 25 and over, 65% who were employed reported working from home in the 24-hour survey period in 2020 — a 28 percentage point increase from 2019. By contrast, only 19% of employed workers in the same age bracket whose maximum education level is a high school diploma worked at home in 2020, up from 13% in 2019.

The transition to remote work was less common in sectors of the economy that involve face-to-face contact or specialized commercial equipment — from leisure and hospitality to transportation and utilities — than in sectors that do not.

While the share of people working remotely rose for both men and women, the increase was slightly higher among employed women. The share of women working from home jumped by 23 percentage points in 2020 compared with a 16 percentage point increase among men.

More time spent at home, working or otherwise, meant that Americans spent less time on the road. Average time spent on travel, such as commuting to work, declined by 26 minutes per day from 2019 to 2020.

Liana C. Sayer, director of the Maryland Time Use Laboratory at the University of Maryland, suggested that the shift to telework has likely accelerated Americans’ preference for flexibility in setting their work schedules — and perhaps raised expectations that employers will accommodate them.

“Workers have indicated in surveys done by companies and other research groups that they prefer having the ability to work at home and set their starting time and their ending time as they find most appropriate for their other needs,” Sayer said. “Some are signaling that they don’t really want to go back to life as it was in the office before the pandemic.”

The Labor Department's annual survey seeks to measure how, where and with whom Americans spend their time. The latest results revealed that the increased time spent on child care in 2020 reflected the cancellation of in-person school instruction, sports and other events for children. Adults whose youngest child was between ages 6 and 12 spent 1.6 hours more per day caring for a child while doing something else as their main activity than in 2019.

At the same time, fewer adults living with children provided child care on a given day in 2020. That might have reflected less time devoted to picking up and dropping off children from in-person activities.

The data also showed increased gender differences in child care: Women spent 13 more minutes a day in 2020 on direct care for children in their household in 2020 compared with 2019, while men spent roughly the same amount of time in 2020 as in 2019.

And women spent 46 minutes more than men doing education-related activities for children in their household in 2020. In 2019, men and women had spent roughly the same amount of time on these activities.

An analysis of the survey data by the Brookings Institution found that mothers of children 12 and under at home spent, on average, more than eight hours on child care. The Brookings analysis also found that working mothers provided 7.4 hours of child care on weekdays in 2020, spending more time than employed fathers, unemployed fathers and fathers not in the labor force.

“Child care is now a full-time job for mothers,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at Brookings. “They’re spending more than eight hours a day doing child care, and their work hours have suffered. Even if they’re juggling both child care responsibilities and working, they’re now working less than they would before.”

With many businesses closed because of public health recommendations, the survey found less time spent at bars, restaurants, grocery stores and shopping malls and more time spent at home. People ages 15 and over also spent more time with members of their own household than in 2019 and fewer hours with everyone else.

People spent, on average, 32 minutes per day more on sports and leisure in 2020 — a function, in part, of the decline in employment and travel during the pandemic. They also watched more TV and benefited from a few more minutes of sleep each day.

“If people are well-rested, I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world,” said Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at Barnard College who studies the economics of time use. “I’m in favor of more leisure. So I don’t think this implies anything negative about the economy that we didn’t already know.”

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AP Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.