Rural counties are the least prepared for a major increase in people working from home during the COVID-19 crisis, according to a new report. The report comes from a researcher at the Purdue University Center for Regional Development who analyzed telework and e-learning preparedness and vulnerability on a county-by-county basis. The analysis considered factors such as internet connectivity and the percentage of the work force employed in various occupations or industries.

Rural Telework COVID-19 Research
About 10% of U.S. counties are highly vulnerable, according to the analysis. At the other end of the scale, 27.4% of U.S. counties have no vulnerability. In between, 34.4% of U.S. counties have a low vulnerability and 27.7% are moderately vulnerable.

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Two thirds of the high vulnerability counties are in rural areas, according to the analysis, while 13.3% include small cities and 20.3% are in metro areas. In comparison, 63% of counties with no vulnerability are in metro areas, 16.6% include small towns and 20% are in rural areas.

Highly vulnerable counties “will have a very hard time implementing the mitigation strategies recommended,” the researchers wrote. “This means their social distancing efforts will be undermined, placing their students and workers in distress during this outbreak.”

In gauging counties’ vulnerability, the researchers considered five variables, including three related to internet connectivity and two related to occupation and industry. The internet connectivity variables used in the rural telework COVID-19 research were:

  • the percentage of households with no internet access or that rely solely on cellular data
  • the percentage of households with no computing devices or that rely solely on mobile devices
  • the percentage of the population with no access to broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream

The occupation and industry related variables aimed to identify occupations and industries that don’t lend themselves well to telework and included:

  • The percentage of workers employed in “service, natural, construction, maintenance, production, transportation, material moving and military-specific occupations”
  • The percentage of workers employed in construction, manufacturing, wholesale, retail, transportation and warehousing, utilities and government, including the armed forces.

Counties were considered to have a high vulnerability if they placed in the fourth or fifth quintiles for all five variables. They were considered to have moderate vulnerability if they placed in the fourth or fifth quintiles on three or four of the five variables. Low vulnerability counties were those that placed in the fourth or fifth quintiles in one or two of the variables, and counties with no vulnerability were those that didn’t place in the highest quintiles at all.

Researchers’ advice?

“As we shift to more remote work, it is important that mayors, economic developers, community leaders, businesses, unions and workers develop strategies to make remote work as inclusive as possible and undertake efforts to ameliorate the economic and spatial inequality that it reflects,” the authors commented about the rural telework COVID-19 findings

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