- Remote workers are the most likely in the U.S. labor force to worry about being laid off and struggling to find a new job quickly, according to a CNBC|Momentive Workforce Survey.
- The tech industry, where layoffs have been concentrated, is part of the data story, due to its broader embrace of remote work relative to other industries.
- But remote workers across sectors of the economy are expressing this employment fear at an elevated rate.
For the majority of workers, even in a slowing economy with recession headlines published on a daily basis and stocks in a bear market, layoffs remain in the abstract.
Fifty-nine percent of American workers are not concerned they or someone in their household will lose a job in the next few months, according to a new survey of the labor force from CNBC and Momentive. And even more (80%) are confident they would find a new job in six months or less if they lost one today.
This worker confidence makes sense in a labor market still running exceptionally hot, but there are some notable exceptions, starting with the niche of workers that have been the envy of the rest of the working world during Covid.
Remote workers are less confident in their ability to find a new job quickly, according to the CNBC|Momentive Workforce Survey for Q4 2022. Specifically, 24% of those working remotely say they could find a new job in one month if they lost their current job, versus 41% of fully in-office workers who say the same. And 24% of those working remotely say it could take more than six months to find a new job, versus 16% of fully in-office workers.
"Remote workers are the most fearful of layoffs, because they know they have had a sweet deal: they may have suffered through the early dysfunction of Covid, but they've since reaped the benefits and relative autonomy created by working from home. That power dynamic will naturally swing back to employers if the economy weakens," said Laura Wronski, senior manager of research science at Momentive.
Momentive conducted the survey for CNBC from Nov. 28-Dec. 5 among more than 10,000 American workers.
Overall, the survey finds worker morale higher now than at any point in the past three years. Nearly three-quarters of workers (72%) say morale is "excellent" or "good" at their workplace right now, up from 64% year over year. Morale is even higher for younger workers, but according to Momentive "morale is up among nearly all workers regardless of gender, race or job level."
Recent job market data shows a level of open positions that even if down from a peak remained above 10 million in the latest government data. And workers are demanding more money than ever before to move to a new job, according to New York Fed data released this week.
"Businesses have been loathe to resort to layoffs since the very early days of the pandemic," Wronski said. "If you have a job where you are able to work remotely some or all of the time, you have it pretty good right now — but it might not last. If the economy shows signs of further weakness, the flexibility and perks that many workers have grown accustomed to over the past few years will likely dissipate."
How traditional job security fears are rising — in two charts
When it comes to layoffs, certain long-time labor market fears are holding true, even at lower levels.
Workers in food & beverage (45%) and transportation (45%), sectors where turnover is historically high and jobs are often lower-paying and where seasonal work related to the holidays is more common — are even more concerned than tech workers (44%) about their job security.
Income level is a big factor in rising fear about layoffs.
Race and ethnicity continue to play a significant role in job security sentiment, too.
But it's as notable, albeit not surprising in the current economy, that the high-paying tech sector is right there with food & beverage and transportation, with almost half of its workers worried about losing their jobs.
Tech layoffs and work-from-home job security fears
The role of tech sector workers in the negative workforce sentiment reading is significant.
Layoffs and quit rates are still very low relative to history, and compared to the recession of 2008-2009, layoffs are way below that level, said Lightcast senior economy Layla O'Kane. The labor economy research firm expects layoffs to remain low through the next quarter.
"Until we start to see job opening rates come down more, [workers] won't have to be concerned about layoffs," O'Kane said.
Even in food and beverage, she said, though a high turnover industry, the level of job openings remains high and there has been a lot of wage growth over the past year.
That brought her back to tech workers as a key to this remote work story. "People working remotely are more likely to be in technology, while people working in person are more likely to be in hospitality or health care," O'Kane said. "People who are working remotely are more likely to be in industries facing layoffs."
She also noted that for professional services workers, it can take longer to find a job because they often have more savings and are able to take their time in moving to a new position. Remote positions are more likely to be offered in jobs that require a Bachelor's degree and the growth in remote work is heavily in college-degree occupations.
There are logical reasons for remote workers to worry more, too. They may have moved to places where there are less, if any, positions available. And they may fear less employers on the open market are offering the same work flexibility as their current job. They may also fear being far away from a headquarters will make them more likely to be higher up on a layoffs planning doc.
But looking at another key factor where professional fears have been linked to remote work, the survey finds the broader workforce more concerned than remote workers themselves: that's on the issue of career advancement. The workforce as a whole expects in-person workers to have better career advancement opportunities (53%); few think remote workers will fare the best (14%). But among remote workers themselves, these fears are not elevated. Just about half of "mostly" remote workers (49%) and exactly half of fully remote worker says opportunities for advancement are equal regardless of work location. Less than one-third of mostly remote workers (29%) and even fewer fully remote workers (22%) say in-person workers will have better career opportunities.
Lightcast says the data on remote work opportunities remains positive, with no weakening in the overall remote work marketplace. As of November 2022, the three-month rolling average of the share of jobs postings allowing for remote work was 15.8% for occupations that require a college degree and 4.9% for those that do not require a college degree. This is likely to undercount the actual number of jobs that would allow for remote work since employers are committing up-front in the posting to remote work (rather than discussing it as part of the interview process).
"By and large we continue to see remote work opportunities stabilize and grow," O'Kane said.
But the CNBC|Momentive data shows that the tech worker influence, while notable in the remote work trend, is a subset of a larger phenomenon.
Tech workers are less likely than other workers to think it would take them less than one month to find a new job (27% vs. 37%, respectively). Tech workers who work remotely are less likely than tech workers who work in-person to think they could find another job within one month (20% vs. 35%, respectively).
But the same is true among non-tech workers who are remote: 27% versus 39% of non-tech workers in-person who say they could find another job within a month. This data also shows that tech workers who work remotely are less likely than non-tech workers who work remotely to think they can get another job within a month if they lost theirs.
"The layoffs in tech are clearly affecting the sentiment among tech workers, driving up fears that they wouldn't be able to find another job in a short time frame if they were laid off. Remote tech workers are more fearful than in-person tech workers, just like remote workers overall are more fearful than in-person workers," Wronski said.
It's a notable negative tech effort, but doesn't change the story much. And the story the data is telling about the latest remote work trend is: the less a person works in-office, the more likely they are to say it'll take longer to find a new job if they lose theirs.
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This story has been updated to add a survey response on career advancement opportunities among in-person and remote workers.