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CBO’s comparison of telework rates in the federal and private sectors

Below is a portion of a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office on comparisons of telecommuting by federal versus private sector employees. Although only a small part of an overall comparison of wages and other factors, the section on telecommuting has attracted attention, including at recent hearings in the House of Representatives, for findings that federal employees have generally telecommuted at lower rates – contrary to the claims of many. in Congress.


Most workers are willing to accept a job that pays less if it offers them the opportunity to work from home. Therefore, offering more telework options could reduce the compensation the federal government has to offer, compared to private sector compensation, to attract and retain highly qualified workers. (Offering fewer telework options would have the opposite effect.)

CBO used data from the American Community Survey (an annual survey conducted by the Census Bureau) to compare the telecommuting rates of federal employees and their private sector counterparts. While the CPS has little data on telecommuting, the American Community Survey asks employees how they “usually” get to work and offers “work from home” as one of the options respondents can select. Thus, CBO’s estimated telecommuting rates likely represent the percentage of employees who work from home most of the time, including those who always work from home.

In both sectors, telework rates across the country peaked during the coronavirus pandemic (in 2020 and 2021) and then partially declined (see Figure 4-1). According to CBO estimates, 22 percent of federal employees typically teleworked in 2022, as did 25 percent of their private sector counterparts. The telework rate for the private sector would have been lower if the CBO had not adjusted for differences in employee education, location and occupation. Telecommuting was more common among college-educated workers in both sectors (except among workers with a professional degree or doctorate in the private sector, who teleworked less than private sector workers whose education culminated in a bachelor’s or master’s degree). Furthermore, teleworking was more common in urban areas. For example, in 2022, the telecommute rate for workers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area was 38 percent for federal workers and 40 percent for their private sector counterparts, according to CBO’s estimate.

Figure 4-1.

Percentage of employees who typically work from home, by sector

Federal employees and their private sector counterparts telecommute at roughly similar rates. In both sectors, telecommuting rates peaked during the coronavirus pandemic (in 2020 and 2021) and then partially declined.

Comments

Data sources: Congressional Budget Office; Census Bureau, the American Community Survey, from IPUMS-USA. See www.cbo.gov/publication/59970#data.

A. The telework rate for private sector employees who are occupationally similar to federal employees, years of work experience, and certain other observable characteristics likely to influence telework.

The possibility of teleworking is highly dependent on the profession. In 2022, federal employees were more likely than private sector employees to work in occupations where telework was common. In the computer and math professions, which employed a larger share of federal workers than those in the private sector in 2022, telecommuting was most common. However, telework rates for people in these occupations varied by sector: 37 percent for federal workers, compared to 56 percent for their private sector counterparts in 2022. One reason for the much higher telework rate for private sector workers could be that It’s more likely that federal employees will have to go into the office to access sensitive data. For example, federal employees who work as operations research analysts (a common occupation in the Department of Defense that often requires a security clearance) are less likely to telecommute than their private sector counterparts.

Federal employment was also common in some occupations where telecommuting was rare in 2022. For example, among federal workers in the nursing, law enforcement and transportation safety enforcement sectors, the telecommuting rate was less than 10 percent in 2022 — likely because professions require frequent in-person interactions. In contrast, other occupations in which telework is rare (such as construction, manufacturing and transportation) employ few federal workers.

Less telecommuting among federal employees overall than their private sector counterparts could have somewhat reduced the appeal of working for the federal government in 2022. There is limited evidence that American workers would be willing to give up an average of about 8 percent of their salaries to work at home about half the time. Other research has shown that the ability to telecommute increases employee retention at a large technology company. However, the telework rate was only about 2 percentage points lower for federal workers than for their private sector counterparts in 2022, the CBO estimates. This finding suggests that because only a small share of federal employees could telework more if they instead worked in a similar occupation in the private sector, the average effect of less teleworking on the attractiveness of federal employment was small.

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