Local workers are being left behind in the rise of telecommuting

Maleah Nore has a job she is passionate about which is promoting mental health and working on suicide prevention in Indigenous communities. But she would like to do this work closer to the rural southeast Alaskan village where she grew up.

“Part of the reason we’re seeing drainage like this in our villages is because people are being forced to move into these huge hubs,” she said, as is the Portland metro area where she now resides.

A hybrid model allows Nore to sometimes work from her home office, but not hers Homelands of the Tlingit.

“In order to do the work we must do to help our people and get ahead in this world, we must leave our villages,” she said. “It’s just counterproductive.”

Because distance makes it harder to be a good relative and a community member, Nore said.

Jordan Dresser knows what she means. He studied journalism in college and knew his work would take him away from his home on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming.

“I’ve worked at various newspapers across the country, in Denver, North Dakota and Salt Lake City,” Dresser said.

Now as Chairman of Business Council of North Arapaho, Dresser sees this as part of a larger problem: the tribe invests heavily in the education of its citizens. But there are only a limited number of clerical jobs in the tribal government or in the reservation’s small frontier towns.

“Unfortunately, we often don’t have the space to hire these people [with higher degrees],” he said. “So they’re going to have to look for employment off the reservation here in Wyoming, or maybe even out of state.”

Dresser sees a role for remote work in curbing churn and helping more people in Arapaho find work in their chosen fields.

“I would love it if someone with a degree in classical literature could work completely outside of those boundaries for a university or elsewhere and still live here,” he said.

research from the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Center for Indian Country Development notes that the remote work revolution could have unique benefits for tribal communities and economies, but that native workers are being left behind.

“No one accesses the remote work environment as little as the Native American/Alaskan population,” he said Matthew Gregga senior economist at the Minneapolis Fed and author of the report.

At the peak of the pandemic, Gregg said, data was from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 23% of Native workers were teleworking due to COVID-19, compared to 31% of white workers.

“One of the main reasons is that there are employment disparities between whites and Native Americans,” Gregg said.

Indigenous people are over-represented in areas we know to be “essential” such as health, education and service workand underrepresented in office jobs, which are more likely to allow teleworking.

More than two years into the pandemic, Gregg said the telecommuting gap has narrowed, but those job differences no longer explain the gap.

“In fact, there is racial inequality within the professions,” he said.

Gregg and his co-author, Robert Maxima senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution, some ideas about what else might be going on.

“The first is access – or I should say lack of access – to broadband Internet,” Maxim said.

Local households, especially in rural areas, are less likely to have high-speed connectivity. By some estimates, as many as 18% of aborigines living on reservations do not have internet access. Indigenous people are also more likely to live in multi-generational homes and sometimes crowded Housing.

“It means they have less space to physically work from at home,” Maxim said.

Like many challenges in the Indian country, these are the result of decades of underinvestment in tribal infrastructure, despite the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to these communities. It’s a problem that becomes cyclical when tribes are unable to keep young people, including some of their most educated citizens, close to home.

“Migration makes it harder for individual tribals to maintain ties with their culture and fellow citizens,” Maxim said. “For native nations as a whole, population loss weakens their ability to function as sovereign political entities.”

Maxim said the goal is for Aborigines to be able to work in any field of their choosing while remaining civicly active and culturally invested in their tribal communities. Polimana Joshevama who is hopiShe’s happy to have found that balance after leaving her home in Arizona for college in New Hampshire.

“I was a bit homesick. I missed the mountains and I missed the sunsets and the country here. I just felt the need to come back,” she said.

Graduating at the height of the pandemic, when remote work was still so common, made it much easier to get home. She now works for a Portland-based nonprofit, as does Maleah Nore, but she can do that work from Tucson.

“Even being here in the desert has had a huge impact on my overall well-being and mental health,” Joshevama said.

It helps her stay connected to the urban Aboriginal community of her hometown and to her tribal nation, now that she’s only a few hours’ drive away, no overland air travel.

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