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Remote workers pay cooling bills or sweat out summer heat at home

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 7, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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The sun sets behind power lines in Los Angeles, California, during the record-breaking heat wave over Labor Day weekend. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Remote workers pay cooling bills or sweat out summer heat at home

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 7, 2020
The sun sets behind power lines in Los Angeles, California, during the record-breaking heat wave over Labor Day weekend. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
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This Labor Day weekend brought a record-busting heat wave to much of the West. Los Angeles recorded its highest temperature ever, with part of the city reaching 121 degrees Sunday. It brings to a close what was a hotter than average summer across the country — one which many workers experienced from home instead of their aggressively temperature-controlled offices.

Anna Chen is among the legions of newly-remote employees adapting to work without industrial HVAC. The communications officer for Los Angeles County’s transit agency counts herself lucky to have air conditioning in her apartment. But she tries to save on electricity by toughing it out with fans until the late afternoon and setting the thermostat near 80 degrees when she does turn it on.

“I’m really cheap about some things,” she said. She’s taken to lying on her cool tile floor to work on her laptop and reminiscing about her frozen office.

“I usually have to keep a little cardigan or something there,” she said. “That is one of the things I think I really do miss.”

Tyler Knight, a product manager for an LA entertainment company, has been working in a studio attached to his garage, which he said heats up to about 85 degrees by mid-morning. He turns on his portable AC only when he gets really desperate, as his electricity bill has already shot up 25% over last year.

“There’s that moment late in the afternoon, where you’re already sort of dragging a little bit and the heat just doesn’t help,” he said.

An analysis by Riordan Frost, research analyst at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, found that electricity use has decreased overall during the pandemic, but residential energy use is up.

“So basically, there has been a transfer of burden from the commercial and industrial sectors to the residential sector,” Frost said.

And workers are — for the most part — paying for it themselves, said Jeffrey Ruzal, an employment law attorney at Epstein Becker Green in New York City.

“Most states actually do not have reimbursement requirements with respect to what employers have to pay to employees who work from home,” he said.

Some states like California and Illinois do have stricter laws requiring employers to reimburse employees for work expenses at home. Until now, those have mostly applied to things like cell phone bills or internet service, but he thinks the current situation could force a change.

“I think in the next few months, we are going to see a closer look by the courts and departments of labor and other agencies to see whether there should be consideration of air conditioning and other electricity usage for working-from-home scenarios,” he said.

Because as hard as it may be to imagine from a steamy home office now, a cold winter and its heating bills are just around the corner.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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