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Higher-income workers have more work-at-home flexibility

People who work from home some of the time tend to make more money than people who work exclusively at home or at the office, according to new data from the Census Bureau.

The median annual earnings for people who worked at home at least one day a week but also worked at a job site was $52,800 in 2010, compared with $25,500 for people who worked at home exclusively and $30,000 for people who always work onsite, the Census Bureau found.

The data come as more people are working from home at least some of the time. About 9.5 percent of workers, or about 13.4 million people, worked from home at least some of the time in 2010. That was up from 9.5 million people, or 7.8 percent of all workers, in 1999, the Census Bureau reported.

"Mixed" workers who work both at home and in an office are generally affluent, with median household income of $96,300, according to census data. That compares with median household income of $74,000 for people who always work at home and $65,600 for people who always work onsite, the researchers reported.

Nearly half of the people who worked at home exclusively were self-employed, but experts say there are other explanations for why those who work from home make less. 

Some employers are finding that especially among younger workers, the ability to work at home and forgo a grueling commute is such a beneficial perk that they are willing to accept a lower starting salary in exchange for it.

“They’re placing more emphasis on certain aspects of work/life balance,” said Lisa Calicchio, vice president of recruitment and talent services for Covance, a drug development company based in Princeton, N.J.

Calicchio – who happened to be working from home when she spoke to TODAY – said her company has become more accepting of telecommuting among people who don’t do manufacturing or other work that requires a physical presence.

Flexibility can be a great recruitment tool in the traffic-clogged Northeast because it saves employees the headaches that come with commuting, and it also can save employers money on real estate.

Although she only works from home on occasion, Calicchio said plenty of staffers are exclusively working offsite. The company uses a variety of communication tools to keep in touch, and Calicchio said she encourages them to be proactive about phoning and e-mailing their managers just to stay in the loop.

Still, those phone calls are no replacement for face time, and Calicchio said it can be a challenge for managers to accept that their workers are getting the job done even when they can’t be seen.

The reality, she said, is that many offsite workers outperform because they are so grateful to be skipping commute.

“It’s kind of the honor system,” she said. “It keeps them honest. It keeps them thankful.”

In fact, research shows that people who work at home tend to work harder to prove they are just as productive as if their boss were sitting across from them, said Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at Michigan State University.

Some of those workers – particularly the ones who work at home occasionally – could easily be classified as overworkers. They are the ones for whom the convenience of the home office leads to what she calls “job creep” as work seeps into nights, weekends and vacation time.

The corollary to that is “family creep,” when at-home workers find themselves doing child care, laundry and other duties while also trying to finish their work. That’s another problem some companies and workers face.

In general, Kossek – who also was working at home when she spoke with TODAY – is a fan of telecommuting. But she said companies need to provide cultural support to help telecommuters excel at their jobs while dealing with practical issues such as technical problems. And they need to shell out the money to bring virtual workers together at least occasionally.

Her research has shown that the system works best when people have a mix of home and office time.

But she added that working at home can limit your ability to get ahead and can lead to big communication problems.

In one case, she said, a student of hers went to work for a company and was required to work in the office while boss telecommuted.

One of her first tasks, which she had to perform without the physical presence of her manager, was to lay people off.

“She was extremely depressed,” Kossek said.