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Americans fear rising cost of working from home as pandemic continues

"It's not everything that we thought it would be. A lot of that comes down to additional expenses that we just didn't see," one working parent said.
Image: Norwood family
Virginia Norwood, a mother of three, said she and her husband had to put their mortgage into forbearance to help them keep up with higher bills due to staying home more during the coronavirus pandemic.Virginia Norwood

For Marie Clara-Cantillo's family, staying home during the coronavirus pandemic brought an increase in monthly expenses her family could have never predicted.

Clara-Cantillo, a patient educator with a pharmaceutical company in New York who’s always worked from home, said her usual routine has been upended by skyrocketing utility bills, dozens more meals to cook for her three children, and exorbitant child care costs.

"Since March, our gas and electric bill has really increased ... Because every computer is on, every television is on, all of the lights are on and chasing after kids to shut off the lights," she said.

Nearly half of the American workforce recently entered their seventh straight month of working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of June, 42 percent of American workers were working from home, while 26 percent of workers were reporting to work in person, according to Stanford University.

“Working from home has ups and downsides on costs,” Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom told NBC News. “Of course, you do have to pay more water and you do have to pay more electricity ... On the other hand, you have to set that against you've saved a lot of money on commuting.”

NBC News spoke with several Americans, including working parents, who said they don’t know whether the savings on commuting expenses has been enough to cover their rising utility usage costs. Some have had to find extra work to pay their bills, while others have had to make significant cuts to other areas of their budgets.

Clara-Cantillo said that in addition to her utilities increases by about $300 this summer, she also decided to enroll her six-year-old daughter in half-week parochial school for the year at a cost of $670 per month, just so she can maintain some of her remote work routine.

“I'm fortunate that I am able to pay but it comes out of that extra savings that you're able to maintain,” she said.

In September, Virginia Norwood's family received a $600 electricity bill. Meanwhile, the family, residents of Norfolk, Virginia, saw their most recent water bill shoot up to $185 - it's typically $65 per month. Soon after the $600 electric bill, the Norwoods put their mortgage into forbearance for three months because they couldn’t afford the monthly expense.

Norwood's five-year-old son is completing his schooling online from home this fall.Virginia Norwood

“It has been a struggle,” Norwood said. “We've had to set up some provisions with the electric company to spread that $600 bill over the next 12 months, because we definitely did not have $600 budgeted for that.”

Norwood, a mother of three who works as a human resources assistant, attributed the spike in her family’s electricity bill to having three computers and a television running all day, as well as her kids opening the refrigerator -- sometimes mistakenly leaving the door open for hours without her realizing.

Tiffany Hall, who lives alone in Birmingham, Alabama, said her electricity bill has gone as high as $140 while working from home. Prior to the pandemic, it was between $70 to $90. Her water bill also doubled from its usual $27. Most recently, her water bill was about $57.

“At the end of April, I was like, ‘What's going on?,’” Hall, a benefit authorizer for the Social Security Administration, said. “I didn't think about it at first, and then I was like, ‘Oh, it's because I'm at home all day using the power and the water.”

She recently got a second job as a caretaker, working 20 to 30 hours outside of her home each week, and is using some of that extra income to help cover the higher utility bills.

And it doesn't look like households will get a reprieve this winter during which, electricity consumption is expected to increase by about 8 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Short-Term Energy Winter Outlook. Households that use electricity for heating are expected to spend an average of $1,209 on electricity bills -- a 7 percent increase -- this winter. The agency defines the winter seasons as the months of October through March.

“EIA’s forecast for increased residential electricity consumption this winter is driven both by colder expected temperatures and by a shift in consumption patterns resulting from efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the report said.

When Levi Bethune’s partner was laid off due to the pandemic, their household income was severed in half. Bethune, who lives in Chicago, works at the tech startup Jiobit. The company specializes in GPS location for parents to monitor their kids' location, but saw a reduction in sales with many children doing remote learning, leaving Bethune and other employees to take a pay cut.

“Our family went from suddenly a household of two incomes and four kids away at school to suddenly one income that was reduced as well as both of the adults working from home and all four kids trying to do school from home,” Bethune said. “And that was an overnight thing.”

Levi Bethune's family is juggling working from home while their four kids do remote learning. Bethune took a pay cut during the pandemic, while his partner lost their job.Courtesy Levi Bethune

Bethune said that prior to the pandemic, he and his partner would talk about working from home as if it was "the dream."

"Now that we're actually doing it ... it's not everything that we thought it would be," he said. "A lot of that comes down to additional expenses that we just didn't see.”

For Jessica-Anne Leaver, 34, the sudden shift to remote learning forced her to quit her job as a longtime medical assistant at NYU Langone Medical Center to support her son’s first-grade remote education.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “The groceries alone are killing me,” which she said has increased more than $400 per month during the pandemic.

She said she and her husband, who works as a sanitation worker in New York City, are looking for homes in Pennsylvania in hopes of reducing living expenses by moving out of Brooklyn.

Jessica-Anne Leaver, who had to quit her job to support her son's remote education, has purchased supplies to help create a makeshift classroom at home.Courtesy Jessica Anne-Leaver

In March, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 authorized the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program (P-EBT) which gave students who would have received free school lunches $420 total in food benefits for the meals they missed due to pandemic-related school closures.

While both Leaver and Clara-Cantillo both received the P-EBT stipend, they said their grocery bills were still much higher than normal.

Meanwhile, coronavirus relief from Congress has been thrust into uncertainty, after President Donald Trump announced that negotiations were off the table until after the Nov. 3 election. However, he urged Congress to approve a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks.

Norwood said her family isn't counting on another round of stimulus checks, but said it would make a world of difference if Americans did receive them again.

"It isn't a lot of money, but it would be enough for us to catch up on our bills, do some car maintenance, home maintenance and maybe rebuild our emergency fund," Norwood said. "If we're lucky."