Telecommuting: Will the Plug be Pulled?

Workers who "commute" to work by computer would be made outlaws if the forces opposing home work have their way.


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."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983 there were nearly 48 million women in the labor force, about 43 percent of the working population. In addition, there were 7.4 million mothers who didn't work and had children younger than 6 years old. Many of those 7.4 million do not work because they cannot afford child care or it's unavailable in their area. Others, like Coombs, want to stay home to be near their children while they're young; and to judge from recent popular discussions, there's a growing trend in this direction as the baby-boom generation is moving into parenthood.

In many such cases, telecommuting offers a splendid way, sometimes the only way for women to combine employment and being near their children most of the day. Last year, Margrethe Olson of New York University's Graduate School of Management surveyed employees in home-based pilot programs, asking, among other things, why they wanted to work at home. The most frequent response: "young children."

Even for people who do not need to stay home, telecommuting can make working much more pleasant. "I love working at home," columnist Warren Brookes said in a telephone interview. "I have a separate part of my house for my work. If I feel like writing a column in the middle of the night, I can—and who's going to argue?"

Brookes writes his columns on a Xerox 820 personal computer, then conveys the copy electronically by telephone to three or four of the 15 papers that carry his column. (The other newspapers receive old-fashioned "hard copy.") Although he travels into Boston every few weeks for interviews and conferences, he figures he could just as well do everything from his home. "It's easier to say bad things about a politician if you've just talked to him on the phone and not sat down to lunch with him," he observed.

"I know all about the telecommunications revolution," Brookes added. "It enables people like me to be one-man shows, to avoid organizational corporate nonsense."

Other up-scale professionals would agree. Consider the bucolic lifestyle of Madeleine P. Swift, vice-president of the Philadelphia brokerage firm Butcher & Singer. She makes $130,000 a year and, according to New England Business, she telecommutes from her farm in Corinth, Vermont, dressed for work in blue jeans, a cotton shirt, and clogs. People like Swift "do their jobs in often-verdant surroundings hundreds of miles away from their employers," says the magazine. "The biggest problem for their employers, some say, is the envy of their city-bound colleagues."

Telecommuting also offers new opportunities for physically disabled people when physical commuting to work is difficult or impossible. Joan Orke of Minneapolis is one. When she became disabled with arthritis, she had to move to her mother's home in nearby Rochester and she received Social Security disability payments.

"I was homebound at the time and very restricted in my mobility," she recently recalled, "but I wanted to work. I didn't like receiving a handout. I'd rather be a taxpayer." In 1981, she finally got a chance. Control Data installed a computer in her home in Rochester and provided an eight-month training program for her.

"I got my lessons on the computer," she told me. "I talked to my instructors over the computer. In fact, I could page my two instructors over the computer or talk to them by phone." Eight months after her training was completed, Orke was hired by Honeywell Corporation as a programmer, and she subsequently moved to Minneapolis.

Orke has regained sufficient physical mobility to travel two miles once a week to Honeywell's offices for staff meetings, but otherwise she still telecommutes from her apartment. She is a regular salaried employee at Honeywell, with the same wages and benefits as other programmers at her level. The only difference is the telecommuting.

"The people at Honeywell have been wonderful," she said. "Telecommuting makes it possible for me to work for them. I have flexibility in how I schedule my time. If I'm not feeling well, I can take a nap in the afternoon and work at night. If I weren't able to work at home, I'd be on Social Security. That means a lot to me. Most people don't like sitting around watching TV and reading books. I know I didn't."

There are other similar success stories, including American Express's "Project Homebound." In late 1982, American Express converted the New York City homes of 10 physically disabled, home-bound individuals into electronic word-processing stations, as American Express senior vice-president James G. Raney, Jr., last November told a National Academy of Sciences symposium on office work stations in the home. In each home, the company installed a word-processing terminal, a central dictation system, and a telecopier, all linked to American Express headquarters. This was the first time that any company had tested home work stations providing total telecommunication rather than just electronic word processing.

Project Homebound was designed as a pilot project scheduled to last only nine months. However, it was so successful that in September 1983, American Express hired all of the participants in the program as full-time regular employees. "The pilot [proved]…that there is in this country a rich, untapped resource of trainable, competent, and highly motivated human potential," Raney observed.

American Express official Victor Hochman recently told me that the response outside the company to the project has also been overwhelmingly favorable. Project Homebound was conceived of as a local effort and so far has been tried solely in New York City, currently the only area where it's economically feasible. But, says Hochman, "I receive letters from all over the country asking about Project Homebound. I have a letter from someone in South Carolina asking when we're going to expand to include people outside of New York."

Telecommuting also opens up employment possibilities for prisoners, as Carol Odich knows from first-hand experience. At the Arizona Center for Women (ACW), a minimum-security correctional facility in Phoenix, she is one of 30 inmates who work as Best Western reservations agents in a facility the company has installed at the center. Of every 100 customers who dial Best Western's toll-free number to make a hotel reservation, five to seven are helped by Odich or her colleagues at ACW.

Odich walks about 500 yards to work. Her hourly wages are the same as those of Best Western reservation agents outside—$4.12 beginning pay, $4.31 after 90 days—although the ACW inmates aren't eligible for Best Western employees' benefit package. She must pay 30 percent of her after-tax income for room and board at ACW, another 30 percent goes to support her son, and the rest is divided between an account that she can spend at the prison store and a deposit account to which she will have access when she leaves ACW. It is not a lavish salary, and the garnishments from her paycheck are steep, but she observes that it is a lot better than the 20 cents per hour she made in her last prison job as a cook.

Odich is very enthusiastic about her Best Western work. "Once I get out, I won't have to be a waitress or a cook or a maid," she told me. "My home is in Florida, and when I go back there, I'll have training to make something of myself. I'd never worked at a computer in my life before now. It's a real advantage to have these skills."

Best Western has trained and hired a total of 130 ACW inmates since the program began in the fall of 1981. Many of the workers have been able to take their families off welfare as a result (one even started her own bakery business within the prison). Moreover, eight ex-inmates have been hired by Best Western after being released from ACW. They and Best Western have the new phenomenon of telecommuting to thank.

The benefits can be impressive for those who are actually telecommuting, and they can be substantial as well for businesses. As part of her study of formal work-at-home pilot programs last year, Margrethe Olson of New York University asked companies why they had started such programs. The firms' responses included:

• cost savings realized by not paying employee benefits to home workers (although this is not the policy of all companies that employ telecommuters) and projected cost savings resulting from reduced office-space requirements

• increased employee productivity, both in situations where productivity is not directly measurable and in instances where employees are paid on a piece-rate, contract, or hourly basis;

• the tapping of an otherwise inaccessible labor force;

• social responsibility to increase employment of the handicapped; and,

• a shift of computer utilization to "off-peak" hours, since many home workers use computers during evenings and weekends.

Most of Olson's findings are borne out by other reports. Increased productivity is probably the most frequently cited employer benefit. Last November, Greg Geisler—then an executive with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Carolina, where Cindy Coombs works—told the National Academy of Sciences homework symposium about his employer's experience with telecommuting. When the company calculated an "optimum day's work" standard of productivity for keyers and coders of major-medical claims, it found that the units produced per hour by the in-house keyers and coders averaged 76 percent of the standard while the cottage workers had chalked up an impressive 102 percent.

Ron Manning of Control Data noted at the same meeting that all of the 27 employees in Control Data's Alternative Work Site programs believed they were more productive away from the office. Their managers estimated productivity increases of 20 percent.

In both of those cases, most of the workers are clerical employees and computer programmers, but this productivity increase reportedly occurs with professional-level employees as well. At home, "you're not into office distractions," Frank C. Knight, Jr., the telecommuting manager of New York Telephone, told Business Week. "I can put a letter or a memo together in half an hour that would previously take half a day."

Some analysts suggest that telecommuting's potential benefits reach far beyond those directly involved. In a 1983 study prepared for the California Energy Commission, JALA Associates pointed out that telecommuting could save some of the large amounts of energy now consumed in commuting to and from work. Looking at California alone, they figured that telecommuting could save 202 million gallons of gasoline annually, or about 2 percent of the state's annual consumption, by the year 2000. On top of this, there would be a reduction in rush-hour traffic jams now plaguing California's metropolitan areas, as well as positive effects on air quality and land-use patterns.

So what's wrong with telecommuting? Why the hostility to it evidenced by the pejorative label "electronic sweatshop"? Despite all of the actual and potential benefits to workers and employers, telecommuting confronts an array of obstacles and adversaries. The Nation article "Home Computer Sweatshops" is only the tip of an iceberg.

Probably no institution has been more vocal than labor unions in opposing telecommuting. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose 780,000 members are mainly clerical and health workers, has banned computer home work for its members. And in October 1983, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution calling for the Federal Labor Department to ban all computer home work "as a measure of protection for those workers entering the market for the fastest growing occupation in the United States," telecommunications.

A Labor Department ban on computer home work would not be without precedent. In seven other industries—knitted outerwear, women's garments, embroidery, handkerchief manufacturing, jewelry making, button and buckle manufacturing, and glove and mitten manufacturing—virtually all home work has been completely banned by the Labor Department since 1943.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, a cornerstone of New Deal labor legislation, passed with union support, gave the Labor Department the power to ban home work in industries where it believes that minimum-wage legislation can't be enforced. In 1942 a Labor Department official reported that "there are many opportunities for evasion of the minimum wage standards which are inherent in the home work practice." He cited examples of numerous minimum-wage violations in the garment industry. This view was seconded by a carefully selected "blue-ribbon" committee composed of employers (mainly large garment manufacturers), employees (mainly officers of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union), and the public (mainly academics). So in 1943, the Labor Department duly issued a ban on home work in the garment industry.

In at least one area, New England, the Labor Department's enforcement of the ban had become a desultory affair by the 1970s. As a result, workers in New England were able to do a thriving business knitting skiwear and other outerwear in their homes. Cecile Duffany was one. A senior citizen in Manchester, Vermont, she was knitting ski caps and scarves on her kitchen table to supplement the Social Security and veterans benefits her husband receives. Vermonter John McClaughry, a policy analyst, recently wrote about Mrs. Duffany and other Vermont knitters in the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger. She didn't have to venture out in cold weather to go to work, purchase work clothes, or meet a 9-to-5 schedule. "For some two hundred such women in rural Vermont," McClaughry observed, "knitting at home is a heaven-sent opportunity."

Unfortunately, the Fair Labor Standards Act contains no exemptions for heaven-sent opportunity. In 1980, Labor Department officials advised Duffany's employer, CB Sports, that the home-based knitting was in violation of the law. CB Sports ended its arrangements with home-based knitters, but when word of the enforcement action spread, the Carter administration announced an inquiry into whether the knitted-outerwear ban should continue.

A year later, the Reagan administration was in power, and among its appointees was McClaughry, who lobbied vigorously as a White House senior policy advisor for ending all the homework bans, not just the one on knitted outerwear. When David Putnam of Stowe Woolens wrote to McClaughry soliciting his support for ending the ban, McClaughry replied: "You don't have to sell me on the merits of repealing the industrial homework regulations. I am strongly in favor of complete repeal and have advised Secretary [of Labor Raymond] Donovan of that fact."

Donovan, although less steadfast in his views than McClaughry, was sympathetic. With McClaughry's encouragement, he subsequently made two major attempts, first in 1981 and again on March 27 this year, to rescind the ban on knitted-outerwear home work.

So far, however, neither attempt has been successful—the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) has successfully challenged Donovan's actions in federal court. The chief legal issue, given the 1938 law, is whether the Labor Department could effectively enforce minimum-wage laws for garment-industry home work if the ban were lifted. Last November, the Court of Appeals in Washington concluded that it could not, but the Labor Department has asked the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision.

In much of the legal brouhaha, the knitters themselves have been co-represented by the Center on National Labor Policy in Virginia and the New England Legal Foundation in Boston. Robert Ruddock, an attorney with the New England Legal Foundation, worries that the appeals court decision upholding the ban could pave the way for a similar ban or restriction on telecommuting. The rationale for such a ban would be that it is just as difficult for the Labor Department to enforce minimum-wage laws for telecommuting as for garment-industry home work.

According to Ruddock, Donovan may be searching for a compromise scheme for the knitted-outerwear industry. To demonstrate that the Labor Department can enforce minimum-wage laws and thus undermine the union position, Donovan may propose some sort of registration system for the home knitters to keep close track of their work and output. But Ruddock is skeptical of the feasibility of any attempt to strike a balance between preserving the existing ban on home work (as the union wants) and eliminating it altogether (as the knitters want). "I think if it's anything but prohibition of home work," he told me, "the unions will probably go back to court. And if Donovan's proposal is unduly burdensome for our clients, we'll go back to court."

It is conceivable that the wrangling among Donovan, the knitters, and the garment-workers' union could be upstaged by legislation introduced earlier this year by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah). Hatch's bill would amend the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to permit all industrial home work so long as the minimum wage is being paid. This would, of course, end the existing ban on home work in the seven garment industries. More significantly for telecommuters, the bill would effectively quash the assumption that the minimum wage is inherently unenforceable for some types of home work, so there would be no chance that any other kinds of home work (such as telecommuting) could be banned under the aegis of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee held hearings on Hatch's proposal last February. But there is little chance of the bill being seriously considered in an election year because of union opposition.

Why are unions so opposed to telecommuting? At last November's National Academy of Sciences symposium on home work, Dennis Chamot, assistant director of the AFL-CIO's Professional Employees Department, suggested that the perils of home work in the 1800s and early 1900s—health and safety hazards, child labor, wages equivalent to 25 cents per hour in current dollars—indicate working conditions that lie ahead for many telecommuters. "The history of past experiences with industrial homework in this country should make us very sensitive to the danger of abuse," he charged. "The social and economic conditions that led to past abuses are present today, and there is no reason to assume that computer homework will be immune."

Yet Chamot was unable to muster evidence of "telecommuting sweatshops." He did cite two instances in press reports of lower pay and fewer benefits for telecommuters than for comparable office workers—but even he had to admit that "these are, of course, anecdotes. They do not necessarily prove that exploitation is widespread." Ironically, one of the two anecdotes involved Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Carolina. At the very symposium where Chamot was speaking, Blue Cross & Blue Shield official Greg Geisler delivered a paper maintaining that the average base income of the firm's "cottage keyers"—paid on a piecework basis—was $17,916 annually, compared with only $11,285 for the firm's "in-house keyers," who do the same work but for an hourly wage.

Also undermining the "electronic sweatshop" picture, Chamot himself alluded to a vast difference between telecommuters in the mid-1980s and impoverished glove makers in the early 19th century. "It is undoubtedly true," he allowed, "that there is a strong element of predisposition and self choice among today's electronic homeworkers." Less obliquely, telecommuters are telecommuting largely because they choose to!

Karen Nussbaum, who is both the executive director of 9-to-5, the National Association of Working Women, and president of a district local of the Service Employees International Union, told me that the SEIU opposes telecommuting because "there's very little difference between telecommuting and other kinds of home work." (Apparently the evils of other kinds of home work are self-evident.)

"The potential for companies violating minimum-wage rules is great," charged Nussbaum. "Home workers have reduced expenses for clothing, commuting, and child care, but the costs of being isolated are much greater for them in the long run," she continued. "When they're working and taking care of their children, they're performing two jobs at once. We think that home work is a bad solution for the problem of low pay for clerical workers and inadequate child care."

Of course, it is not hard to see that for many people, telecommuting could be less lucrative and pleasant than work options available in conventional workplaces. But that would hardly explain union opposition to all telecommuting.

Union leaders—like entrepreneurs, workers, parrot smugglers, and nephrologists—tend to judge a major economic change according to the benefit or harm they believe it will bring them, and telecommuting's early trend has not been auspicious for unions. With union membership already on the decline among American workers, and with the traditionally unionized industries like autos and steel in trouble, many unionists place high priority on organizing the "pink-collar" (clerical) workers who are also prime candidates for telecommuting. And the unions' goals in this area could be seriously jeopardized by a shift to telecommuting.

The AFL-CIO's Dennis Chamot explained the unions' concern to me succinctly: "It's very difficult to organize workers dispersed over a wide geographical area. It's possible that electronic homework might be a bit different. If they're connected through a communications web, organizing might be a little easier. But in the past, when there has been a handful of workers in a lot of different locations, trying to organize them has been horrendous."

Partly because unions are currently as weak as they are, their opposition to telecommuting has been a fair amount of bark and almost no bite so far. Much of their energy is spent defensively, such as lobbying against the Hatch legislation to keep past victories—like the ban on garment-industry home work—from unraveling. There's not much political capital left over right now for expanding the ban to other occupations. But things could change. Telecommuting could be stopped cold without any new legislation. In an administration less immune to union pressure than is Reagan's, a prounion Labor Department secretary could ban computer home work via regulation, on the argument that enforcement of minimum-wage laws would be impossible for telecommuters.

So far, resolutions against computer home work passed at union conventions have not moved mountains. So a federal ban on telecommuting is not an immediate threat, however venomous the rhetoric about "electronic sweatshops." But there are other, possibly darker, clouds on the horizon—an array of government restrictions at the state, local, and federal level.

Right now, state governments seem to pose the least danger. Many states routinely regulate and occasionally even ban certain types of home work, but so far at least, telecommuting has reportedly not fallen victim to any state government.

For example, New York State has some of the most stringent labor legislation in the country. Since at least 1935, the state government has banned all industrial home work, that is, manufacturing done in workers' homes, with the employers usually providing materials and equipment. The state's Labor Department in Albany vigorously enforces the ban, according to department senior attorney Frederick Hmiel. But when the department received a complaint recently involving computer home work, its staff concluded that computer work is not subject to the ban on industrial home work. Typing is exempt from the ban, and the department decided that computer home work is sufficiently similar to typing to qualify for the exemption. Hmiel said his department "didn't find any other case in another state where computer home work had been banned, so we were pretty much on new legal ground."

Despite unions' political strength in New York, the state legislature has followed the state Labor Department's lead and shown no interest in restricting computer home work. Thus, at least for the time being, telecommuters can pursue their livelihood in a state where the chances of restriction (if not prohibition) are as great as anywhere in the nation.

At the local level, however, telecommuting's treatment has often been more problematic. "Those of us who plop down our Apples in the office at home or in the rec room are probably not in any danger of violating any local ordinances," commented former Labor Department assistant secretary Donald Elisburg recently. "But if the work stations spread and it becomes popular, there may be more consideration of local zoning laws as to whether such installations are permitted." Yes, zoning laws.

In general, local zoning laws already regulate any work done in the home in some manner and often require home businesses to obtain permits. Thus far, such laws have rarely been used against telecommuters. Chicago is an exception. Its city code stipulates that except for certain professionals, who may use their residences for "consultation, emergency treatment, or performance of religious rites," all home work is taboo when it involves the "installation or use of any mechanical or electrical equipment customarily incident to the practice of any such professions."

Thus Chicago's code technically makes outlaws of such shady characters as Coralee Smith Kern, a grandmother who runs a maid service, called Maid to Order, out of her home and heads the National Association for the Cottage Industry. Earlier this year, at the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearings on the Hatch proposal to end home work bans, she admitted, "I operate that business from my home illegally because of zoning." But she vowed that she "will quit conducting that business at home when the Governor of the State of Illinois quits conducting business at home."

The silliness of the ban also occurred to Prof. William Toner in 1976 when he was working at home in Chicago on a report—appropriately enough—on home-occupation planning for the Chicago-based American Society of Planning Officials, now the American Planning Association (APA). To find out for certain whether the city government was in fact construing nearly all home work to be illegal, he checked with local authorities. He concocted a story that he built doll houses in his home and was selling them by mail. He called the information desk at city hall for advice—but the line was repeatedly busy, so he tried the building department, which transferred him to the information desk, which transferred him to zoning.

Finally, he got his answer. "You are in violation of the law. You can't do this, and, if someone complains, you'll be in trouble. If you came to get a permit, they wouldn't give you one," a zoning official told him. Toner observed that this was rather bad news for some of his neighbors, including a guitar teacher next door, a part-time lawyer, a bicycle fixer, a bread baker, baby sitters, and authors—"all breaking the law, all performing a solid service."

It was eight years ago that Toner's report was published, but as of this writing, Chicago's ban on home work is still intact. "The law is one of the nation's most restrictive," Toner told me. "It's structured so that there's a good chance it would be illegal for Saul Bellow to write a Nobel Prize–winning novel at home."

Chicago authors less well known than Bellow are as vulnerable—perhaps more so. Patrick O'Connor, a teacher at DeVry Institute of Technology, is one. He was using a computer in his basement to rewrite a textbook on digital electronics and microprocessors, and his wife was writing a software program for schoolchildren, when they felt the velvet touch of Chicago's zoning law: they were issued a cease-and-desist order by the city for violating the city's restrictions on home work that requires mechanical or electrical equipment. "I called up Studs Terkel and other authors who live in Chicago," O'Connor recalls. "None of them had ever heard of the law. Terkel thought it's outrageous."

Others agreed. In the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, columnist Mike Royko attacked both the law itself and city officials who enforced it against the O'Connors. "The way the law reads, it could be interpreted to mean that even a common pocket calculator could be illegal if it is used for business purposes," Royko noted. "So if an alderman sat down in his parlor and used his pocket calculator to figure out his day's profits, he might be violating the zoning laws."

O'Connor told me that his own alderman, Roman Pucinski, has been supportive and even journeyed with the O'Connors to the zoning board to help plead their case (Pucinski's office is kitty-corner from the O'Connors' home, and he vouched for the fact that their word processors were not disturbing the neighborhood). Zoning officials turned a deaf ear. Then, last April, zoning official James Wilkes told O'Connor at a public conference that the cease-and-desist order had been rescinded—but when O'Connor asked Wilkes to put that in writing, Wilkes refused. "Legally, things are still in limbo for us. They could clamp down again anytime," said O'Connor.

Alderman Terry Gabinski, who chairs the city council's zoning committee, is somewhat vague on the prospects for change. When I interviewed him by phone, he offered an interpretation of the law unlike any other: "As long as someone's doing homework in the true sense, that's okay." He wouldn't explain what "home work in the true sense" means, but he also declared, "We're working on the law. We're going to develop a situation where people can work at home." Asked for his view about how the law should be changed, he said, "I don't have a personal view on what the change should be. That's a technical matter. I'm a legislator, not a lawyer." He also wouldn't predict whether it would take weeks or months before the law is changed.

Meanwhile, O'Connor said that he and his wife no longer work at home, but he continues writing a column for the magazine Computer Use. "I took a lap computer and wrote my last column while I was riding in a CTA bus." He added sarcastically, "This must be illegal, since buses aren't zoned for business use."

Horror stories as awful as the O'Connors' actually appear to be uncommon. The Chicago city code is, as planning expert Toner says, especially restrictive of home occupations. Also, as in most cities, Chicago's zoning enforcement is complaint-based: with few exceptions, zoning authorities there crack down only when they receive a complaint from a citizen, so a telecommuter has little to fear so long as he or she carefully keeps work activities a secret from hostile neighbors.

Yet the O'Connors' travails illustrate the destructive potential of local zoning laws that are on the books in most other locales, too. Earlier this year, for example, the city fathers of Morton, Illinois—the "City of Beautiful Homes"—passed an ordinance banning a huge range of home occupations including bookkeeping services, exercise studios, and palm readers. And two years ago, their slightly more lenient counterparts in Manassas, Virginia, tenaciously fought a case all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court so that they could retain the legal right to restrict home businesses to those that employ only immediate family members.

It's hard to know just how typical such policies are nationally. The National League of Cities says that no data are systematically tabulated on local zoning restrictions of home occupations. But there are solid indications that at least some local governments are considering changes that augur well for telecommuting.

Edith Netter, a noted land-use attorney in Hartford, Connecticut, and a member of the American Planning Association's board of directors, predicts that local planners and zoning officials are tending now toward a "performance approach." That means moving away from blanket bans on particular types of work and looking instead at whether a business generates noise or odors or increases neighborhood traffic. If cities are inclined to follow the professional planners' lead, it's likely that telecommuters, who are usually not noisy nor smelly and do not generate much neighborhood traffic, will stand to benefit.

It's too early to know for certain how telecommuting will be treated by the federal government. Just as this new employment opportunity is in its infancy, so is regulation of it. The most far-reaching possibilities would be either a ban under the aegis of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as advocated by the AFL-CIO, or federal registration of all telecommuters, similar to what Labor Department Secretary Donovan may envision for garment-industry home workers.

But there are other possibilities of regulation. While they are certainly more modest than an outright ban or registration scheme, they could still dampen both workers' and employers' enthusiasm over telecommuting.

At last November's National Academy of Sciences symposium on telecommuting from home, former Labor Department assistant secretary Donald Elisburg speculated on ways that the federal government might regulate or restrict telecommuting. Much of that regulation would hinge on whether telecommuters are considered employees of a company rather than contractors, and so far, the Labor Department has generally ruled that they are employees. Elisburg noted that employee status could mean that telecommuters are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (which includes requirements not only for the minimum wage but also for overtime pay, maintenance of certain records, and prohibitions against child labor); federal, state, and local equal-employment opportunity laws and regulations; the Services Contracts Act, if the employer is a federal contractor; and requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

And there is more. According to Elisburg, employee status also entails requirements for employers, including Social Security participation, unemployment-compensation insurance, the obligation to offer telecommuters the same pension plans available to other employees, and possibly an obligation to offer the same medical plans available to other employees. "If there is a view that this work can be done on the cheap, it's a big mistake," Elisburg concluded.

These are all conditions with which employers and employees in other sectors of the economy are familiar, and most have accommodated themselves to them. But the organization of telecommuting might pose special problems. For example, would a telecommuter's den, like a cement factory or auto assembly plant, be subject to OSHA inspections and regulations? And if an overzealous OSHA inspector were intent on conducting a detailed inspection of a telecommuter's living room, would the worker-resident have any legal right to resist?

So far, these are open questions. That is partly because no such cases have evidently arisen yet. OSHA spokesperson Chris Graybill says that the agency deploys its resources in industries where there is a substantial risk to workers' safety, and living rooms are not thought to pose great risks. He was able to find no cases where OSHA regional offices have inspected people's homes in telecommuting or other occupations. Still, the potential for a legal morass evidently exists, especially if a federal study of video terminals now under way eventually leads OSHA to conclude that many or all such terminals violate federal health or safety standards.

So telecommuting is certainly not home free. It faces a number of hazards, some potential and some already present. If the growth of telecommuting is eventually stunted, the culprit could be an outright ban or a draconian system of registering telecommuters, but it is more likely to be an accretion of pettier regulations—a zoning ordinance here, an OSHA regulation there.

Left to its own devices, telecommuting probably would and certainly should flourish, providing millions of Americans one more opportunity for exercising choice in their lives. But there's no way to know whether telecommuting will be left to its own devices.

David Rubins is a free-lance writer who cannot be parted from his personal computer, "Vicky," but may or may not work at home.