The Zoom call with human resources personnel was about returning to the office.
But for Amanda Alvarez it was about figuring out whether she'd be going back at all.
Alvarez, a 38-year old Texas-based tech worker, has worked fully in the office or fully at home in past jobs, so she knows what it's like to work from home during nonpandemic times. As an introvert, she values the ability to hunker down and focus on her work. But she also has three children in elementary school, and the past year has left her exhausted. She is thankful that on top of that, she hasn't had to deal with a commute that can take 30 to 90 minutes each way, depending on traffic.
"There were days where it felt like I spent half my day in traffic," Alvarez said. "You can't cook while you're in traffic. You can't do any of the house stuff that needs to be done. So you can't accomplish things in your personal life. You can't accomplish anything for your professional life. You're just back behind the wheel of a car."
"I knew years ago that remote work isn't for everyone," she said, "but it is for me."
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For women like Alvarez, who often bear the brunt of child care and domestic duties, the pandemic has been brutal, with many schools and day-care centers closed for most of the past year. In March, the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index found that 30% of women said they felt "overwhelmed or burned out" over the past year, compared to 21% of men. And now, an increasing number of workers who have benefited from the flexibility of remote work are dreading the call to return to the office.
A May Gallup poll found that 72% of American white-collar workers and 14% of blue-collar workers worked remotely from October 2020 to April 2021. Of the 52% of total full-time employees who were working remotely, 35% said they would continue working remotely as much as possible, compared to 17% who wanted to return to an office. Twenty-six percent of those wanting to stay remote because they preferred it while 9% remained worried about the coronavirus. For many occupations, more than 50% of workers said they would choose to stay remote.
About an even number of white-collar men and women said they wanted to stay remote, while more than twice as many blue-collar women (16%) as blue-collar men (7%) said the same.
While big corporations like Google, Twitter and PepsiCo have made headlines for promising greater flexibility as Americans emerge from the pandemic, many employers aren't promising the same.
Since Alvarez joined her company a couple of years ago, she says she's made it clear that she wanted to work from home eventually. It's still unclear whether her company is going to require everyone to come back into the office full time, but in the meantime, she says, she's seen colleagues get offers for permanent remote jobs and leave.
Given her industry and skill set, Alvarez knows she's lucky enough to probably be able to find another job that would allow her to work remotely full time. The labor market is tight, and someone in her industry is at an advantage. "I'm not looking at, you know, work or no work," she said. "I'm looking at 'I will use my talents here or I will use them elsewhere.'"
Elizabeth Richards, a hospital administrator in Portland, Ore., has been working two days a week at home, and the other three at her office since April 2020. She wants to work remotely full time, like her husband, an information technology specialist.
A move like that would save her family about $1,000 a month in before and after schoolchild care for her children - periods of the day when there just needs to be an adult in the house. She's applying to other jobs in her organization that are completely virtual.
Sociologist and Indiana University associate professor Jessica Calarco surveyed 2,000 parents across the United States in December about who stayed in the workforce and what factors went into their decision. One big factor, she said, was access to child care.
While there's no definitive data on how day-care centers have fared in the pandemic, a survey published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in December suggests more than 20,000 facilities have closed permanently.
For others, the thought of going back in person stokes tremendous anxiety.
"A lot of those mothers have at-risk family members either in their household or that they're in contact with regularly that they're worried about exposing to covid. Maybe that's a child with asthma, or maybe that's an elderly family member that they rely on for child care occasionally," she said.
Kelly McWiliams, 41, works in a criminal court building in Texas. For much of the pandemic, she was able to work from home, and then went to a hybrid schedule. Without warning, at the beginning of June, her work-from-home option was eliminated.
"I have been strongly considering quitting my job," McWilliams said, but she makes half her family's income, and has a 14-year-old son and her mother living with her. Her husband is a retail manager who also goes to work in-person.
While McWilliams herself is vaccinated, the vaccination rate where she lives currently hovers around 40%.
"We regularly have inmates brought up to plea and they have covid, so we have to shut everything down and do a deep sanitation," she said. Unlike judges, who can stay at home, she said some court staff have to go in. "I have a compromised immune system, and I have been vaccinated but I work literally next door to one of the largest county jails in Texas."
McWilliams isn't just thinking about herself.
"My 76-year old mom who has cancer and early-stage dementia lives with me. … She's the one I'm worried about."
Anthony Klotz, a professor of management at Texas A&M University, who studies why people quit jobs told Bloomberg that employers stuck in their ways should be prepared for workers to decide they'd rather work elsewhere.
"If you're a company that thinks everything's going back to normal, you may be right but it's pretty risky to hope that's the case."