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The shift to working from home has increased the number of hours Americans work

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Mother with baby working in home office (Shutterstock)

A new study finds that employees are working longer hours since the shift to remote work amid the coronavirus pandemic began, even as companies across the country have cut wages.

This article first appeared in Salon.

The average work day is now 48.5 minutes longer, meaning employees are at work an average of four hours more per week, according to a study of 3.1 million workers by researchers at Harvard and New York University published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Some cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, have seen their average work day decrease since its peak in the spring, but longer hours remain the status quo in cities like New York, San Jose, and many European cities.

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The study, which analyzed anonymous email and calendar data from workers at more than 21,000 companies in 16 global metropolitan areas, also found that the number of meetings has increased by 13%, though the length of meetings fell by about 11%.

The analysis looked at the amount of time people spent at work and meetings during eight-week periods before and after the coronavirus lockdowns.

“These lockdowns established a clear break point after which we could infer that people were working from home,” the authors said. “The earliest lockdown in our data occurred on March 8, 2020, in Milan, Italy, and the latest lockdown occurred on March 25, 2020, in Washington, DC.”

Though the shift to remote work has provided additional flexibility and allows workers to save time on commutes, workers are plugged in more than ever.

“People are afraid — the fear around your job and around the economy — I want to make sure [managers] know I’m constantly responding to emails and messages and am always on Slack,” Cali Williams Yost, the founder of workplace consultancy firm Flex Stategy, told The Washington Post. “It’s a toxic brew of burnout and overwhelm.”

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Jeffrey Polzer, a Harvard Business School professor and one of the paper’s authors, cautioned that longer work days do not mean people are necessarily working more than before, noting that calendar and email data cannot account for unscheduled breaks and interruptions during the day. Either way, being at work longer can have negative effects as well.

“Is it working from home or living at work, or both?” Polzer told the Post. “As we try to manage our work from home environment, it’s very hard to turn off work. That’s always been true since our phones have followed us home, but that phenomenon has grown.”

Polzer predicted that the trend toward longer workdays is unsustainable.

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“Organizations are trying to figure out what the capacity is to handle this type of work,” he said. “People will start burning out if we don’t rethink how they’re spending their time.”

Other analyses have found similar results. Microsoft found that its workers have been communicating more between 6 pm and midnight since the shift to remote work, according to the Harvard Business Review. A survey by the job search engine Monster found that 69% of workers have experience burnout as a result of working from home last month, a 20-point increase since May.

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It’s too early to say whether this will be a long-term trend. But experts don’t expect the shift to remote work to end anytime soon.

“It’s not like we’re going back to normal times,” Polzer told Bloomberg.

Despite the longer work hours, millions of employees have seen their pay reduced amid the pandemic. While tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, at least another 4 million private-sector workers have had their pay cut since the pandemic began, according to researchers at the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute.

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The average base wage in the US decreased by more than 5% between February and May, the researchers said in a study, and businesses have cut nominal wages for about 10% of employees still on the job while “forgoing regularly scheduled wage increases for others.” Some businesses have cut pay by up to 50%.

Workers are more than twice as likely to get a pay cut amid the pandemic than they were during the Great Recession, the study found.

Another analysis by payroll processor Gusto found that hourly workers were disproportionately affected by pay cuts, seeing an average of 23% less pay between February and May.

Millions of other workers have had their hours reduced, leaving them with smaller paychecks. More than 6 million workers have been forced to work part-time due to economic conditions despite wanting to work full-time, according to Labor Department data.

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“I have Fridays off but I would rather have the money,” Denise Iezzi, a New Jersey accounting assistant, told the Post. “You go to work every day and just wonder when will this end. Surviving on three or four days a week just doesn’t cut it.”

The Gusto analysis found that hour reductions have been the biggest driver of wage reductions, cutting pay by an average of 32% to affected workers. The analysis also found that the cuts have affected virtually every sector, with industries like tech, finance, and law particularly affected.

“Businesses typically fire you before they cut your pay, so this is really atypical,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There’s a real risk we would see actual nominal wage declines, which would be unprecedented.”

Some companies, like Tesla, have also cut executive pay, arguing that pay cuts should be a “shared sacrifice.” But a UK study found that the highly-publicized reports of executive pay cuts were largely “superficial or short-term,” noting that salaries typically make up a small part of executive compensation packages.

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The media reports also ignore the size of executive pay compared to employee pay. A recent analysis by the New Hampshire Business Review found that the average CEO compensation package was just under $10 million while the median worker pay was around $56,000. An analysis of S&P 500 companies found that CEOs averaged $14.8 million in compensation, 264 times higher than the median worker pay at those companies.

“The salary reductions amounted to a small percentage of their compensation package, which is primarily based on equity and cash incentives,” the Business Review noted. “The stock market, while volatile, has been going up, increasing the worth of those packages.”

The New York Times noted that, in a survey of 3,000 public companies, “only a small percentage of the companies cut salaries for their senior executives at all.”

Economists also worry that the trend could reverse wage increase gains, which grew 3.4% last year after years of stagnation.

“It took us so long to see even the slightest acceleration in wage growth,” Martha Gimbel, a labor market expert and manager of economic research at Schmidt Futures, told the Post. “Watching that get undermined is devastating.”

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