Commuting is a 'Hidden Tax' on Workers

Let's get employers to pay for it.


Quote of the Moment

The capitalist’s profit is derived from the fact that he has something to sell for which he has paid nothing.

| Karl Marx


Share work futures


As businesses are grappling with post-pandemic plans, many adamant CEOs are demanding that workers return to the office. This despite the large numbers who are equally adamant that they’d like to continue to work from home a large part of the time, if not all the time. In that context, it’s a perfect time to raise a basic question: if employers think that having workers in the office is good for business, why don’t they pay for their workers’ commute? Why don’t they pay for the time and the expenses directly tied to commuting?

Economists like Joseph Stiglitz have made the argument that commuting is a hidden tax, one borne almost completely by the commuter. Yes, some companies offer a commuting cost offset, like a monthly pass for the metro, but that is an occasional perq and not standard practice. And hardly any companies compensate for the time spent commuting.


If employers think that having workers in the office is good for business, why don’t they pay for their workers’ commute?


Maxim Sytch and Lindred L. Greer report on how large this hidden tax is:

According to the 2017 U.S. Census, before the pandemic Americans spent more than 52 minutes every day, on average, commuting to and from the office. The numbers were even worse in traffic-congested metropolitan areas: They ranged from an hour and 12 minutes in New York City to two hours in Jakarta. On the basis of these estimates, shifting to remote work could free up the equivalent of 28 to nearly 50 workdays per year per employee.

Employers are getting a month or more of commuters’ time for free. Stiglitz pointed out that this cost is not shown on the business balance sheet, either as an expense or a factor in costs: it’s completely hidden.

So, why don’t they have to pay for it? Especially now, after the pandemic (or as soon as the pandemic ends, whenever that turns out to be), when companies have seen that what they have said was impossible turned out to be more than possible, and essential.

We should reset the baseline to default to working from our homes (or near them), and if an employer wants a worker to come to the office full time, they should pay them for the commute time and expenses.


Share


Autonomy, the UK-based think tank, has written a report, Claim The Commute, that argues exactly this point. The authors, Nic Murray and Will Stronge, unthread the cultural and economic problems involved:

Commuting is often (mis)understood as indistinguishable from all other non-working time. This not only contravenes our common experience of commuting (as arduous, non-free time), but also obscures the fact that commuting is fundamentally a utility for the worker, the employer and wider economic performance.

The cost burden of commuting is unevenly and unethically distributed amongst the beneficiaries of this utility. These costs are financial, environmental and also pertain to health and wellbeing. In the majority of cases, commuters pay the fare, take the time and bear the brunt of the health costs.

Murray and Stronge argue that these costs should be shared by the workers, the businesses, and the government, at the least. Even that moderate proposition is going to be a big lift. I am going all-in: if the employer wants workers’ butts in seats at headquarters, they should pay for it. (Perhaps governments would allow some sort of tax incentives for this. New York City, for example, might want to encourage businesses to bring their workers back to the city for economic reasons. But that’s a side issue.)


The cost burden of commuting is unevenly and unethically distributed amongst the beneficiaries of this utility. These costs are financial, environmental and also pertain to health and wellbeing. In the majority of cases, commuters pay the fare, take the time and bear the brunt of the health costs.

| Nic Murray and Will Stronge


The authors also point out that Ivan Illich coined the term shadow work:

He defined shadow work as ‘the unpaid work unique to the industrial economy’. This could include housework, activities involved with shopping and/or ‘the toil expended commuting to and from the job’. More recently, Craig Lambert writes that: ‘Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations’. For Lambert, like Illich, ‘commuting is very expensive, time-consuming shadow work’.

Many have argued that other sorts of shadow work could be compensated by a more benevolent society, like caring for the young, unwell, and elderly. Also, a truly enlightened society, especially one that theoretically would like to diminish the environmental externalities of commuting to and from work in cars, would create a comprehensive public transportation system, and make it free.

But let’s just start with pulling commuting out of the shadows and into plain sight. If employers require us to commute to the workplace, they should pay for the time and the fare.

We are talking about a month of our lives each year, which is a whole lot of shadow.