Growing number of Clark County residents are telecommuting

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Tami Marshall's love of her job has only increased since she began telecommuting from her Hazel Dell home about six months ago.

"Now, not only do I have a dream job, but a dream location," said Marshall, a medical coding specialist for PeaceHealth, Clark County's largest employer. She converted a spare bedroom into an office, where she begins her work day at 6 a.m. with her dog, Jazzy, perched atop her desk.

Marshall doesn't have much company, both figuratively and literally. Although a growing number of Clark County residents work from home, the telecommuting trend hasn't taken off as predicted. Twenty years ago, conventional wisdom was that the number of telecommuters would inevitably expand, thus curbing commutes and helping employees accommodate family demands. Yet many employers continue to approach telecommuting with wariness, and some, like Yahoo, have made headlines by revoking the option.

According to Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 39 percent of employees surveyed reported spending at least some time working remotely. The number of Clark County residents telecommuting has grown by nearly 38 percent, but remains a mere sliver of the workforce, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. In 2005, 4.9 percent of Clark County workers, or 9,112 people, worked from home, including those who were self-employed. In 2012, that figure grew to 6.6 percent, or 12,551.

"There was a time in the 1990s when there was a sense that computers were really going to make telecommuting take off, with visions of 20 to 30 percent of the workforce not having to travel to work," said Mark Harrington, a senior planner for the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. "We do see increases in work-from-home rates, but it's not what some people initially were thinking might happen."

While anyone whose job consists of tapping away on a computer would seem to be a candidate for telecommuting, many employers are concerned about declines in productivity and professional collaboration. They also fear compromising computer security or running afoul of wage and hour laws.

Harrington noted that in the small sample of his office, one devoted to transportation issues, none of the nine employees telecommute.

"Then you think of all the jobs that can't telecommute, like your electrician," Harrington said. "There's a whole section of the economy that just can't do that."

Studies show that telecommuting boosts productivity, decreases absenteeism and increases worker retention. But, for better or worse, it also blurs the boundary between work and home and increases the number of hours worked. Gallup reported that remote workers log an average of four more hours per week than their office-based counterparts.

Making telecommuting work

Market forces compelled PeaceHealth to adopt a telecommuting option for its coding specialists, who read through patients' medical charts to assign codes for billing purposes. PeaceHealth first permitted coders to work from home in 2012, said Dee Garcia, who directs PeaceHealth's coding department.

Medical coding specialists are in high demand, she said. Allowing coders to work remotely enables PeaceHealth to keep them happy, as well take advantage of a nationwide talent pool, she said.

"We are now no longer limited by geography," Garcia said.

Before letting a coder work from home, PeaceHealth first reviews the home environment, either with a visit or a photograph, to make sure that the work area is a private place where it's possible to keep medical records confidential. The coder and manager have to agree on a schedule. Workers who have small children must prove they have arranged for care outside the home, Garcia added.

"We started with people who had established good productivity and quality," Garcia said. "We make a concerted effort to keep them connected."

A few coders have decided to return to the office because they feel isolated or distracted, but most have thrived working from home, Garcia said.

That's certainly true for Marshall.

"I save on gas, and wear and tear (on my car). I went from filling the tank every week, to filling it every three weeks," Marshall said. "I save on food. I had a horrible habit of eating in the cafeteria. I make a sandwich, and I'm good to go."

Her office is spare and tidy, with a few photographs of her grandchildren as decor. She feels she's more productive at home.

"There's a little bit of the social part I miss, but I'm not a big talker. I just want to get my work done," Marshall said. "It's easy to get up to go to bathroom and then stop and say, 'Hi, how are you? How was your weekend?' Before you know it, you've lost 20 to 30 minutes."

Marshall maintains focus, but working remotely affords her flexibility when she needs it. With permission from her supervisor, sometimes Marshall will take a break during the day to help her 84-year-old mother, making up the hours later.

"If she has an appointment, I can work at 8 at night if I needed to," Marshall said. "I could take a day off and make it up on Saturday. That wouldn't be as easy if I had to get into an office building."

Commute 'killed me'

Flexibility is a key reason why Christian Bullock sought a work-at-home option.

"It killed me to go to Portland every day," he said of his old commute.

He found a job at a San Francisco-based online marketing agency that not only allows him to work from home in Vancouver, but also gives him great freedom in how he structures his work day.

His wife, Jessica, leaves early for her job as a speech language pathologist for the Camas School District. He cares for 10-month-old Penny and 2-year-old Marleigh until 8:30 a.m., when the nanny arrives and his workday begins. He locks the door to his bedroom and focuses on work, collaborating through online chats and videoconferences with co-workers and clients until his wife gets home at around 4 p.m. Then he sets work aside to hang out with his family. He finishes his workday after the kids go to bed.

"I feel a little guilty when I log off at 3:30, but my co-workers know I put in the hours later," Bullock said.

He does his best to set a firm line between work time and family time, but if the kids have a doctor appointment, he can take them. Other than those necessary outings, Bullock rarely peeks outside his bedroom office while working, lest he confuse his daughters.

"If I come out during the day, they say, 'Daddy home? No more work?'"

Given that his desk is right next to his bed, he tries to keep it tidy and clear.

"My wife says when she goes to bed," he said, "she doesn't want to look at all the work stuff."