The Pandemic Has Changed Commute to Work Patterns Here

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Have Chelan and Douglas Counties become the new home for hundreds of big city refugees since the pandemic?

Judging from the Trends’ Net Migration indicator, possibly. 2020 was the third-highest flow on record, at an estimated 1,677 new residents due to moving in. The three years since then have all shown in-flows considerably higher than the average of the five years preceding the pandemic (about 800 new residents).

But are these new denizens of the two counties remote workers? That is difficult to parse from the data available to Trends. The closest proxy can be found in the indicator Share of Commuters Using Alternative Modes of Transportation. The 2022 estimates, from Census, were recently uploaded to the indicator.

This measure considers five alternatives to the use of a privately-owned vehicle to move to and from work. In the five years before the pandemic, carpooling represented the largest share, with an average of 7%. This shouldn’t be surprising given the number of agricultural workers in the two counties. Working from home (WFH) was the second most common means, with an average share of 6% over the same years. Walking captured third place, with an average share a bit below 4%, followed by public transit at 1% and bicycling at half a percent.

And now (2022)?  WFH represents the most common alternative, with an estimate of about 11% commuters in the two counties. Carpooling was a close second at 10.5%   Walking, public transit and bicycling contributed an estimated total of 5%.

This implies that over a quarter of all commuters in the two counties are now using alternatives to the privately-owned vehicle. Impressive, right? Compare to Washington State and the U.S., perhaps not so much. In 2022, over 35% of all Washingtonian workers reported alternative means to work to Census, while 30% throughout the U.S. did. These represent large jumps from the immediately preceding pandemic years. The largest contributor to the increases has been WFH. In 2022, Census estimates this slice of the Washington workforce at 21% (!) and of the U.S. workforce at 15%.

Nonetheless, the local share of WFH has nearly doubled from the pre-pandemic average. To what degree these are workers already here before the pandemic or new entrants is impossible to determine. But it seems plausible that a some of the growth is due to recently settled residents,

To confirm this (unknown number) and to expand it, it will be important for local decision-makers to ensure that those who want to work from home can expect high capacity broadband at their fingertips. The good news is that recent Census estimates, found in Trends indicator 0.3.6, show penetration here nearly at the average of the state. For 2022, this was 79% vs. 81% for Washington. This is the highest share among Eastern Washington metros of households with a broadband connection.

Another, subtler factor that will draw mobile workers is a warm welcome extended by their new neighbors as well as civic and political leadership.  In most communities this is the case, if only because their positions are typically highly compensated. But we’ll to keep in mind their presence here carries ripples for the housing market.