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Data: Telework Rates Still High for Government, but Falling

Federal data show that government was able to quickly transition to telework at rates comparable to many other industries. They also shed light on trends over time, as well as differences at state and local levels.

Government agencies have leaned more heavily on telework than the economy as a whole during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since the bureau began asking questions about telework and COVID-19 in its monthly Current Population Survey in May, it’s consistently found public-sector employees working remotely at a higher-than-average rate — 57% in May, which has dropped steadily to 35% in August. State workers have teleworked at higher rates than local workers in every month.

The decline was not unique to government; for all workers, those numbers were 35% in May and 24% in August.

Crucially, the survey questions were designed to single out people who teleworked specifically because of the pandemic, and not people who teleworked for other reasons or who usually telework.

Therefore, the numbers reflect a fundamental truth about government employment: much of it is office-based, and office work is among the most friendly to remote work. Where office-based industries such as finance and insurance had high telework rates — 54% in August — work that relies on in-person activity such as construction had much lower rates (7.9% in August).

While there were some specific industries and occupations that have seen higher telework rates than government — computer and mathematical occupations were at 76% in May and 68% in August — the data also show the public sector being broadly capable of transitioning quickly to remote work at similar rates to many industries. That’s been reflected in many of the stories Government Technology has heard from public officials throughout the year.

It should be noted that many workers economywide have been temporarily or permanently laid off during the pandemic, and it’s difficult to assess the relationship that might have had with the percentage of employees teleworking in each industry.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.