Portland has long been among the cities with the largest share of people working from home, and Oregon enjoys relatively fast internet connections compared to other parts of the country. Both are big advantages during the pandemic, since many offices are closed to prevent infection.
A new report from Josh Lehner, with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, tries to gauge how big an advantage those trends may be once the coronavirus epidemic ebbs. Lehner concludes that there is little evidence, so far, that people are relocating to the suburbs or preparing to work from home permanently after the pandemic.
However, Lehner said the shifts under way now may present economic opportunities for Oregon.
“Even incremental changes and evolutions can matter for regional economies, workforce needs, commercial real estate, and the like,” Lehner wrote.
Many businesses — tech companies like Facebook especially — have indicated that they will be more open to remote work in the future. That could enable more workers to choose Oregon to make their home, even when their companies are based elsewhere.
The Portland area has long been an outpost for big companies based elsewhere (Intel, HP, Xerox, eBay and Amazon among others), but remote work could make a big difference in rural communities that have been historically concentrated in just a few industries.
“This increase in economic diversification should make our regional economies more resilient and better able to withstand different types of recessions over time,” Lehner said.
That depends, of course, on those communities having good internet access to enable workers living there to do their jobs remotely. Lehner found that connection speeds lag significantly in eastern and southern Oregon. Telecom companies are less inclined to pay for expansive projects in lightly populated areas, where there are potential subscribers to help them recoup the cost of their investment.
And access to internet varies considerably by demographics. In a follow-up report, Lehner wrote that while 92% of white households with children in the Portland area have broadband internet. Just 77% of nonwhite, non-Hispanic households with kids do.
Federal coronavirus relief programs have expanded funding for rural broadband across the country, and the Oregon Legislature passed a cell phone tax last month to fund expanded broadband service in remote parts of the state.
It’s not clear how far those programs will go to address the rural broadband gap, though, and they would do nothing to address racial and ethnic disparities. Lehner’s report notes that many inequities persist.
“This goes for urban vs rural, young vs old, rich vs poor, and white vs Black,” Lehner wrote. How all of those factors interact matters considerably for social, economic, and education connections in society.”