Work from home? Native Americans are left behind

Report: Remote work has the potential to create new opportunities for Native Americans who could connect with jobs without leaving their community

By: - October 28, 2022 4:02 am
A woman works on a computer in her home office as her elementary age daughter sits on the floor and colors.

The nationwide shift toward remote working could help stop the flow of out-migration from tribal communities and boost their economies, though broadband access and job discrimination remain barriers (Getty Images)

Let’s start with an important question: What would the economy look like for tribal nations if every citizen could work at home? The idea of remote work – something that boomed during the pandemic – could be a vehicle to end the “out migration” from rural tribal communities and create new opportunities.

Now hold that thought while considering a report about the data.

Robert Maxim (Mashpee Wampanoag) is one of the authors of a paper, “Native Americans are getting left behind in the remote work economy,” published jointly last month by the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The paper found that so far Native Americans are being consistently left behind other workers in the work-from-home trend. And, “even as media outlets and researchers have begun to emphasize the benefits of remote work, fewer analyses have focused on its racial disparities.”

“At the height of the COVID-19 economic crisis, Native Americans worked remotely due to the pandemic at a rate 8 percentage points lower than white workers,” the report found. “As workers returned to the office in 2021 and 2022, that gap closed but never disappeared, and by early summer 2022, Native Americans were still working remotely due to the pandemic at a rate 2 percentage points lower than white workers.”

The researchers cited a variety of factors, ranging from the lack of high-speed internet to a decent desk and other furniture. On top of that, multigenerational families often share a home and, by extension, a workplace.

The report said: “Native Americans live in overcrowded housing at a rate higher than any other racial group, and likely have fewer rooms available to convert into workspaces.

Matthew Gregg, a co-author of the report, told the ICT Newscast that the result “is a pretty large racial gap in teleworking among all the racial groups that are measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Indians, Alaska Natives on average have the lowest, remote work access rate. It was lower relative to other races at the start of the pandemic.”

One key point: The different categories of jobs do not explain the gap.

The report said past research has found a “distinct occupational distribution” that has impacted Native American workers.

“Native Americans tend to be overrepresented in certain frontline occupations (which often cannot be done remotely) and underrepresented in occupations that require a college degree (which are more likely to be able to be done remotely),” the report said.

But then the researchers looked at a later timeframe — May 2021 to April 2022 — and discovered that occupational differences did not explain the gap. “If differences in the jobs that Native American and white workers hold are unable to fully account for the difference in remote work rates, what other factors may help explain the gap?”

The reasons could be the number of multigenerational families working in the same home or affordable Internet access. “Now we’re reaching the stage where we’re getting this hybrid work environment, and we are seeing long-lasting barriers to equality in the labor force, especially between whites and American Indians,” Gregg said.

“Beyond space considerations, inadequate construction may mean Native American workers face challenges around soundproofing or lighting that make remote work difficult,” the report said.

There is one additional factor: Job discrimination. “Multiple scholars have found that even when controlling for educational disparities, Native Americans still tend to end up in jobs that require less education and have worse labor market outcomes — with the effects of the latter being particularly strong in states where Native Americans make up a larger share of the population. This may be a function of discrimination that Native Americans face in the labor market, which would in turn affect their ability to work remotely.”

New data shows that Native Americans are still last.

So it's this kind of constant story and we're just trying to shed light on not only the remote work access, but what it kind of symbolizes and it symbolizes as a whole.

– Matthew Gregg, co-author

“It’s kind of a proxy for work engagement and work-life balance and all these other variables,” Gregg said. “And it does suggest that like the title suggests in the paper, American Indians are lagging behind in this kind of new way of working.”

There is another story. At least a potential story. And that’s the possibility for remote work to reshape tribal economies.

“For Native nations, remote work has the potential to bring new economic opportunity,” the report says. “This matters because Native nations differ from many other communities in that out-migration not only has economic impacts, but is also a threat to cultural wellbeing … Remote work has the potential to address these challenges by creating new opportunities for Native American workers to connect with jobs without leaving their community, as well as for Native-owned firms to connect with workers while still being based in their tribe’s homelands.”

“There’s benefits to individuals around remote work, and then there’s benefits for Native nations as well, and tribal economies in particular,” Maxim said. “Remote work has the potential to reduce out migration from Native Nations, in particular by creating both new opportunities for Native American, American Indian, Alaska Native workers to connect with jobs without leaving their home communities, but also by creating opportunities for Native firms, for example, to connect with workers elsewhere while still being based on their homelands. And that’s a huge source of potential spillover jobs as well.”

Millions for internet infrastructure awarded to tribal communities in N.M.

There is an economic cost when people leave Native nations. And remote work at least offers the potential for people to build a livelihood while staying connected to their culture at home.

One of the challenges to make that idea happen is to increase the investment in Native nations.

“I don’t think that there’s a single policy fix that will eliminate the remote work gap, but rather in order to rectify some of these discrepancies, we think that the Native American workers and tribal economies really as a whole will need sustained investment over time,” Maxim said.

“Congress’ surge of pandemic-era spending is partially addressing other barriers to remote work in rural tribal communities, such as high-speed broadband access and housing infrastructure. But these barriers are the results of centuries of shortcomings in federal funding, and will require additional, sustained investment over years or decades,” the report said. “Policymakers could consider a new tribal focused infrastructure bill, with the goal of expanding investments in housing and digital infrastructure.”

The report concluded that there is a larger issue than remote work because “it’s also a proxy for how well certain groups can access good-paying work. That Native Americans consistently have the lowest access to remote work indicates the continued challenges they face in the U.S. labor market.”

This story was originally published by ICT. It is republished here with permission.

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Mark Trahant, ICT
Mark Trahant, ICT

Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.