Home Is Where the Work Is

By Powers, Mike | Human Ecology Forum, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Home Is Where the Work Is


Powers, Mike, Human Ecology Forum


Some work full-time and others part-time. Some make a lot of money, and others barely scrape by. But home-based workers are beginning to account for more and more of New York State's economy.

Mark Levine and Deirdre Martin have commutes most of us would envy. His is about thirty paces, up two flights of stairs, and takes all of fifteen seconds. Hers is even shorter, up just one flight of stairs. While the rest of us are running around looking for the car keys and trying to get the kids out the door, they're already at work at their computers or on the phone with colleagues in New York City.

Levine and Martin, freelance writers of books and magazine articles, work in separate rooms of their home in Ithaca, New York he in a third-floor attic office and she in an office on the second floor. The two are among the more than 20 million Americans who spend at least part of the week working in or out of their homes. According to Ramona Heck, an associate professor of consumer economics and housing and the J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise, they're part of a trend that has grown enormously in the last decade.

"Home-based work has increased for three reasons," Heck says. "First, many women in the eighties wanted to work and bring in an income and still have time for their children. Second, the availability of technologies such as computers, printers, fax machines, and high-speed moderns has made it possible to do work at home that before could only have been done at the office. And third, employers are realizing that letting employees work at home cuts down on office expenses and other costs."

Heck recently completed a multi-year study of 103 home-based workers in New York Stale to determine the value of home-based work to the state's economy. Her study was part of a larger project involving researchers from eight other universities who studied 796 home-based workers in Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont. Working with graduate student Likwang Chen, Heck estimated the value of home-based work to New York's economy, developed a profile of the average home-based worker in New York State, and compared it with home-based workers in the eight other states.

Home-based workers have been the subject of just a few prior studies, none of which focused on New York State workers. The U.S. Census Bureau included information about home-based work in its 1980 census, and the Department of Labor conducted a study in 1985. A follow-up study was conducted in 1991.

"One problem is that the definition of what constitutes home-based work differed in all these studies," Heck says. "For our study, we defined home-based workers as people who worked at the home or from the home at least six hours a week throughout the year. They had to have been involved in the activity at least twelve months, and they had to have had no other office from which the work was conducted. We did not include farmers unless they performed a value-added activity to what they grew, such as producing maple syrup or operating a retail market on the farm."

The study divided the subjects into two groups: business owners, who operated their businesses in the home or from the home, and wage workers, who worked at home but were employed by someone else. In the New York portion of the study, Heck interviewed 75 business owners and 28 wage workers. The business owners included contractors, arts and crafts retailers, sales and marketing people, and professional and technical people. Among the wage workers, more than half were involved in sales and marketing and another 20 percent were involved in professional or technical occupations.

The results of the study indicate that home-based workers have a significant impact on New York State's economy. Based on the sampling scheme, Heck and Chen estimate there are approximately 250,000 home-based workers in the state, exclusive of New York City, and that around 63,000 of them are in rural areas. …

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