Gov. Baker’s telecommuting tax break may have limited impact

(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

By Zoe Yuqing Han
BU News Service

With around half of the state workforce concentrated in industries like education, health care and hospitality that require onsite work, Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to create a telecommuting tax incentive for companies to ease commuting congestion faces potential friction and technical challenges as his transportation bond bill works its way through the Legislature.

U.S. Department of Labor data from 2019 shows that a quarter of Massachusetts employees work for health care and education systems, 9.62% in accommodation and food services, then followed by 7.56% in manufacturing. Around 5% work in mining, lodging and construction, and 3.32% in transportation, warehousing, and utilities.

The breakdown reflects the difficulty in trying to ease traffic congestion by allowing more workers to work from home. That congestion has become an increasing concern for workers in choosing an employer, as highlighted in a MassBio survey this summer that found one in every four employees in the biotech industry has considered leaving the state for a better commute.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation reports in August that more than half of the greater Boston area (inside I-95/128) is congested from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and up to 65% from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

To address this congestion, the Baker administration put forward a tax credit incentive program up to $50 million each year to encourage employers to develop working policies to promote offsite work. It is one of the most publicized components of the $18 million bill to fund major transportation improvements.

With almost one-fifth of the whole workforce in health care and social assistance, industry officials do not see telecommuting as an answer to their commuting headache.

“If someone works in a lab, they may be able to work from home one day a week, as the day that they’re doing their analysis or kind of preparing for other pieces,” MassBio Vice President of Programs and Global Affairs Elizabeth Steele said in an interview. “In a lot of cases, working from home full-time would not be possible in this industry.”

In a hearing a few weeks ago, Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack suggested that Massachusetts, and Boston specifically, can look to other areas with similar size and industries, such as the San Francisco Bay area, to adopt telecommuting as a possibility. They said the state has a lower telecommuting rate of employees compared to others.

In Massachusetts, 4.7% of the workforce telecommutes full time, lower than 19 other states, according to a report from FlexJobs. In contrast, California is 5.4%.

Steele said the poll found only 28% of respondents were able to work remotely at least one day per week based on their companies’ current policies. Because of the special nature of the industry, said Steele, it is not possible for most biotech employees to telecommute full-time.

However, as a result of the poll, Steele said MassBio did adopt a formal policy requiring all of its own workers to work remotely one day per week based on their schedules. MassBio CEO Bob Coughlin also sent out a message on the day results were released, encouraging all member business CEOs to take a similar approach.

“We understand that not all of our member companies would be able to, especially not full-time,” Steele said, “but we do encourage any other solutions that companies can make on their own in order to effect some change in the short run.”

Chris Geehern, Executive Vice President of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), said a telecommuting tax credit would be a step in the right direction.

“It’s a whole lot easier to keep people off the roads than to build new roads and tunnels,” Geehern said.

He said employers are already looking at telecommuting for higher efficiency and a broader range of potential employees. The only factor affecting employers from incorporating telecommuting policies would be the nature of work, but even for industries like manufacturing, Geehern said, employees in accounting, communication, finance functions could potentially telecommute.

An HR practices survey sent to AIM members in the beginning of the year shows that 62 out of 224 companies who filled out the form have some sort of telecommuting policies for a portion of their workers. Geehern said the result might undervalue the trend for all of the employers in Massachusetts, as manufacturing companies are a huge portion of their members.

Similarly, health services have a potential new group of people who are capable of telecommuting. Telemedicine and telehealth, providing virtual access to their patients using video-conferencing, are a new trend in health services, said Sarah Hamilton, vice president of area planning and development of the Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization that serves the hospitals and educational institutions in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area.

Hamilton and Geehern both point to the importance of organizational IT support to keep records and information secure.

“Cyber security becomes more challenging obviously, as you have people outside the walls of the building,” Geehern said. He said companies deal with accessing the internal systems differently. The approach AIM adopted is a single sign-in and the system would keep out the out-of-state IP addresses, unless their employees reported their out-of-state status beforehand.

As working offsite requires more engaging ways of management, telecommuting not only sets a requirement for the nature of work, but also requires efficient communications between employees and employers.

AIM employees are responsible for having high-speed internet access at a home office and have their Skype location current throughout the day. But with more than 30 towns in western and central Massachusetts waiting to complete the broadband installation, holding video conferences at home might be an issue for workers who live in those areas.

In 2008, Massachusetts Broadband Institute set up the Last Mile initiative to help connect residences and communities in 45 entirely unserved towns and nine partially served towns recognized by the state. By July 2019, according to a project breakdown by MBI, only 13 out of 47 grant-authorized towns already completed the construction and six towns are still waiting for grants.

Before broadband access utilizing fiber, and other specific delivery technologies, most Last Mile towns used DSL or satellite services. A source familiar with broadband installation said such facilities lack in consistency and bandwidths, which would slow down the speed and results in lags and gaps when multiple devices, including some smart home technologies, use the internet.

Although federal and state grants fully fund the Last Mile project to ensure broadband infrastructure in towns, communities are not guaranteed service availability to every resident. Most of them would still need to buy from private companies for the service.

For longer-term solutions, MassBio’s Steele said government still needs to incorporate better infrastructure to solve the issue. Commuting benefits for employees are short-term solutions that can ease the employee burden quickly, but will not eliminate the problem.

“So as an industry, we are trying to come up with solutions in the short-term and then we are hoping that the government can focus on much broader large-scale improvements across the whole system,” Steele said.

Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, one of the most populated areas for biotech and health services, tries to address the heavy congestion through a comprehensive commuting program starting in the last century. The program includes numerous shuttle buses, pooling incentives for Uber and Lyft, and subsidies for using public transportation of up to 50% to 75%.

Hamilton said MASCO did a lot of advocacy work and evaluations to improve commuter rail and MBTA transit, especially the Green Line, in pushing up the population commuting to work by public transit from 39% to 48% from 2010 to 2016.

“The Green Line is the life’s blood to this area and it’s going to be the last of the rapid transit lines to receive the full amount of improvements,” Hamilton said.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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