MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tavalicia Bell, a 26-year-old shipping dispatcher, was imagining a life working from home, her dog Cody by her side, she said as she hurried to finish her cheesesteak. But in this city, she explained as other workers filtered into Lennys Grill & Subs, most companies insist that employees show up in person.
“A lot of things you can do online,” said Bell, who returned to on-site work at a logistics center just three weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic. “But in Memphis — like, physically — you have to move boxes.”
The much-hyped remote-work revolution hasn’t landed in all places with equal force. The five states where employers offer the most flexible policies are liberal, wealthy and mostly coastal — California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts — according to a survey of companies nationwide by Scoop Technologies, which specializes in flexible work software and data collection.
Workers in Southern states with below-average union representation, minimal education and more traditional definitions of hard work are showing up to their offices, factories and other job sites. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee have the highest percentages of in-person jobs in the country.
Memphis has a higher proportion of employers requiring on-site work than any other U.S. city, according to the Scoop data.
But some local politicians and business leaders worry that a return-to-work economy in red states will limit the talent pool, locking people into low-paying, backbreaking labor while Californians and Coloradans work laptop jobs from home and cash big checks from tech companies.
Tennessee state Sen. London Lamar, a Democrat who represents Memphis, said she fears her overwhelmingly Black city is stuck in a “blue-collar economic system,” spawning high poverty rates and workers “who cannot break into another class” because of the dependence on warehousing and distribution jobs. She wonders why the businesses that offer more flexibility — mainly, tech firms — are going elsewhere.
“I would love to see more corporations coming to Memphis that can provide these white-collar jobs,” Lamar said. “These are the jobs where you don’t use your hands. You’re sitting at a desk all day. … They tend to make more than those who are busting their asses.”
Alexandra Shockey, 35, who started Edit Media Consulting, a remote communications business, after a decade of mostly in-person work at FedEx, said she has seen openings in Memphis for jobs that could be done from practically anywhere.
“You could have a rock-star person filling this role from anywhere in the world, honestly, and it would make this Memphis business stronger,” she said.
Nationally, 40% of people with full-time jobs are working from home at least one day a week, according to WFH Research, a project led by economists at Stanford and the University of Chicago. But the gap between places like Memphis and places like Los Angeles is big — and could grow.
In the three months through February, 9% of new job vacancies posted by employers in Memphis allowed for at least one day of remote work. That’s more than double the share from before the pandemic and slightly below the national average, which is 10%, according to an examination of millions of job postings by WFH Research.
Job postings in blue states are much more likely to be remote-friendly. In San Francisco, for example, remote jobs accounted for 30% of advertised openings over the same period — the highest share in the country, apart from a couple of small university towns. About a quarter of the jobs posted in Boston and Washington, D.C., were eligible for hybrid work. In Los Angeles and Irvine, the rate was about 16%.
The state you live in dictates not only whether you can carry a gun or have an abortion but what books your children read at the school library. Now, geography can determine whether you have to show up to the workplace.
Employers in states won by President Joe Biden in 2020 were more likely to allow employees to work from home than those that were carried by former President Donald Trump, according to polls and research by Matthew Kahn, a USC economics professor and author of “Going Remote.” He also found that businesses based in pricier housing markets were more amenable to remote work.
Democrats and higher earners across the political spectrum are far more likely to have jobs with the flexibility to work from home and to take remote work benefits into account when deciding whether to take a job, according to a poll conducted for The Times by Leger, a Canadian firm with experience in U.S. surveys.
In a nation already divided by ideology and economics, remote work will make people more likely to group together according to their social and political inclinations, with liberals moving to or staying in states that are friendly to working from home, said Richard Florida, an expert in urban studies.
Leger’s polling backs up his argument. Among Democrats, 74% said flexibility to work at least part of the time from home was important in choosing a job; 50% of Republicans felt the same. Among workers who have that privilege, 35% of Democrats said they would leave a job if they were told to come in five days a week, compared with 23% of Republicans.
The poll also found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support politicians who encourage flexible work policies.
“We’re accelerating the sort,” Florida said. “It’s going to make blue places bluer.”
Memphis is a logistics hub — it’s on the Mississippi River and home to FedEx — but that’s only part of the reason for a culture more tethered to in-person work.
“This is just a big Southern city, and people just adhere to tradition,” said Bill Larsha, an attorney for Memphis who was called back to the office more than a year ago — largely, he believes, to satisfy the constituents of the elected officials for whom he works. “I don’t think they take working from home as seriously as other cities.”
Workers in Tennessee and other states that lean toward in-person jobs barely spent time away from work sites during the pandemic; politics, culture, and economic attitudes helped push many back to warehouses and offices after just a few days of quarantine.
“The running joke during the pandemic is that we never shut down,” said Rod McDaniel, who leads an electronics recycling firm about 40 minutes north of Nashville. “I wouldn’t say we didn’t take it seriously, but it wasn’t pushed hard here.”
Employers in Memphis argue that they had good reason to call workers back — they said they found it hard to manage people who were all over the place.
“They were losing those connections and the ability to have oversight,” said Mary Leigh Pirtle, a Memphis lawyer who represents employers. “Some of my clients have expressed that there may be some work-from-home fatigue happening, and the hope is that either moving them back into the office or toward hybrid work will relieve that.”
That imperative has seeped even into jobs that can easily be done remotely, such as those involving legal, planning or creative work. The big logistics and retail firms see in-person work as a necessity for maintaining culture and showing solidarity with employees who have “been on the front lines” since the pandemic started, said Kevin Brewer, co-owner of LEO, a corporate events company.
“From a corporate office standpoint, they’re like, ‘Our front-line employees have been there, right? We need you back in here so you can support them,’ “ he said.
His workers come in at least three days a week, weary of meetings via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, he said: “We missed that camaraderie in the sense of where you are meeting someone in the hallway or just popping into a cube.”
Cities and states with big populations of remote workers have paid their own price.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose city imposed some of the nation’s strictest quarantine rules, is urging the Biden administration to send federal employees back to the office as her downtown, like others that depend on white-collar workers, has emptied out, leaving vacant office buildings and storefronts and lower tax revenue.
California has been losing more residents to other Western and Sunbelt states, as workers conclude that by living elsewhere and teleworking, they can keep their salaries without spending as much on housing and taxes.
That shift has allowed some tech workers and entrepreneurs to move to states that are closer to family and have cheaper housing. That could offset some of the growing economic and social divide in the U.S., said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor and member of the WFH Research team.
Much of the movement away from Memphis has been to suburbs or such cities as Austin, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City and cross-state rival Nashville, which have stronger tech communities and a greater share of people working remotely. In Memphis, population 628,000, there are not enough of such migrants to sustain a true knowledge-based economy.
“We’re leaving money on the table,” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis.
If Tennessee could attract more remote-work jobs, it might be able to employ a higher percentage of the population. For some people, caregiving demands and the cost of child care make in-person work hard, if not impossible. People with children are more likely to say they value flexibility in choosing a job (72%) than those without kids (59%), according to the Times-Leger poll. Other surveys have shown that women, who often serve as primary caregivers, have a stronger preference for remote work.
People of color also place a higher value on working remotely, according to the poll; Joel Suarez, a labor studies specialist at City University of New York, attributes this to long-held anxieties.
“Working from home reduces the relentlessly awkward and painful politics attendant to having to face the white professional class daily,” said Suarez.
Some workers in Memphis believe bosses are determined to lay eyes on their employees, either to gratify their egos or to fill expensive office leases, regardless of any real business benefit.
“It’s definitely that, like, power struggle of, ‘We already own this, and we want you back in the office,’” said Laurinda Moore, who has a front-row seat as a manager and account supervisor for a high-end office furniture store.
Some Memphis workers, fed up with going into work for no apparent reason, have switched jobs.
Brandon Davis thought his employer was needlessly calling him back to the office. He decided in December to take a job at another marketing firm that was fully remote. He and his wife had grown comfortable home-schooling their children during the pandemic.
He works from a study near the front door of his home in Germantown, an upper-middle-class suburb 30 minutes from Memphis.
His kids go to school in a room behind the kitchen. His wife works part time for his father’s business. But he worries that the region is not suited to remote workers; he had a hard time getting an internet plan that could keep everyone in the family online at the same time.
Davis’ boss, Sheperd Simmons, said his main concern is that his remote employees are working too hard, unable to separate their jobs from their home lives. He works in a four-story office in leafy Midtown that’s full of industry awards, computers and whiteboards, but not many workers. The president is in Dallas; the rest are scattered across nearly 20 states.
“In a knowledge economy,” he said, “you need the best brains you can get.”