Cindy Coombs, a housewife and mother of a 20-month-old baby in rural Lugoff, South Carolina, codes major-medical insurance claims for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Carolina. Joan Orke, who is disabled with arthritis, is a computer programmer for Honeywell in Minneapolis.
Warren Brookes, a resident of the Boston suburb of Duxbury, writes columns on economic issues for the Boston Herald American and about 15 other newspapers nationwide.
Carol Odich, an inmate at the Arizona Center for Women, works as a reservations agent for Best Western International hotels, headquartered in Phoenix.
It might appear that Coombs, Orke, Brookes, and Odich have little in common. Yet each of them is on the cutting edge of a phenomenon that could well transform the lives of many in the working population for the better-unless it is stopped by its adversaries.
The phenomenon is "telecommuting." Even the name is fairly new: Business Week defines telecommuters as people who work at home but "commute" to a central office via computer. The last few years have seen enormous progress with communications equipment, computers, facsimile transmitters, and other telecommunications technologies. The result is that it is now possible for people at home to perform a variety of jobs that had been reserved for traditional workplaces. "Not too long ago, people who 'telecommuted'... were lonely pioneer on the frontiers of information processing," Business Week observed earlier this year. "But now, their success, coupled with rapid gains in technology, has kicked off a dramatic surge in the number of U.S. companies employing telecommuters."
The magnitude of a shift from a central workplace to the home is potentially enormous. Oddly enough, though, no one, including the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has any reliable data on how many people are now telecommuting-or even how many work at home in any capacity. Because of the lack of hard figures, educated guesses of the number of telecommuters abound. Labor Department official Michael Ginley says, "I've seen estimates ranging from 3 million to 40 million." But two typical estimates are 11 million (from a recent study by AT&T), and 5-10 million, reported in Consumer's Digest. In any event, most observers agree that home workers are already a substantial part of the work force. As for the future, social-trends watchers such as Alvin Toffler talk of 15 million people working at home by the end of the decade, and Consumer's Digest says the figure could rise to 15-20 percent of the work force by then.
The prospect of such a dramatic increase, however, has not been universally welcomed. In at least one instance, local authorities have shut down a computer home worker because telecommuting violates local zoning laws. There is ample precedent for outlawing computer home work under federal labor regulations. And unions are sounding alarms about the prospect of expanding home work.
Meanwhile, publications such as the left-liberal Nation magazine are carrying the rhetorical banner against home work. A 1983 Nation article bearing the title "Home Computer Sweatshops" keyed into people's revulsion at the exploitation of workers attributed to 19th-century low-wage factories. "A wide expansion of electronic home work," warned the article, "will have serious social consequences."
Little evidence of impending serious consequences was adduced, although ominous charges were intimated-"nineteenth-century working conditions," "isolation," low pay, child labor to supplement the parent's earnings (this only might happen, conceded the author), and "disempowerment" of women. It seemed enough to note that businesses expect to save money by computer home work (so it must be hurting workers). And if that isn't enough evidence of its undesirability, consider this: "the New Right has embraced the concept of home work."
The Nation article never conceded that people are choosing home work. In fact, it suggested the opposite by referring to "those workers, especially women, who are compelled or pressured to accept it." Not surprisingly, the article ended up suggesting that a ban on telecommuting may be warranted.
Meanwhile, the scare phrase "electronic sweatshop" is gaining currency among opponents of the trend, at the same time as enthusiasts project the possibilities. Richard Adler, director of the Institute for the Future, a respected Menlo Park, California, think tank, is one of a team of authors who devised a scenario for 1998 that envisions a large shift to telecommuting. Adler suggests that the ranks of telecommuters will include "programmers, software writers, data analysts, information brokers, database managers, forecasters, planners, stockbrokers, designers, modelers, architects, journalists, authors, real estate information service agents, travel agents, and so on."
This scenario is not the stuff of science fiction. Much of what he forecasts for 1998 is already occurring in major American firms, including New York Telephone, American Express, Aetna Insurance, and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Carolina. Indeed, according to Marcia Kelly of the New York-based telecommuting consulting firm Electronic Services Unlimited, some 200-300 companies already have formal or informal telecommuting programs, and their ranks are growing.
Because of telecommuting's novelty, there is little empirical data so far on its effects on telecommuters themselves or on their employers. Most available information is anecdotal. But both the data that have been compiled and logic suggest an enormous advantage of telecommuting- it opens up the job market to people who might not otherwise be working, and it can make work more convenient and pleasant for people already working.
One group for whom this is true is women with small children, like Cindy Coombs. "When I found out I was pregnant, I wanted the job as a 'cottage coder' because I wanted to raise my kids myself and be home with them," she told me. "When my son David took his first steps, I didn't want to hear about it from someone else."
Coombs is physically present at Blue Cross & Blue Shield only a few minutes every day, when she picks up a new batch of claims to code and drops off the previous day's batch. "I pick up the work about 3:30 in the afternoon and I work on and off until 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning. There are things I have to work around, like doctor's appointments for the baby, and I can manage it this way," she said. "It's great to have the flexibility."