When Workers Can Live Anywhere, Many Ask: Why Do I Live Here?

Gillian Holdstein and Jarred Roth were both in California for business in March when the pandemic hit. So the New Yorkers decided to stay for good.

The couple chose to move to Sonoma about four weeks into quarantine at their friends’ house in the wine region. Ms. Holdstein’s employer, the e-commerce firm MikMak, let her open their first West Coast sales office from home. Mr. Roth is focused on a restaurant he is preparing to help open in the area.

They flew back briefly to gather their belongings, including Mr. Roth’s cat, Jerome, who had been on an extended stay with friends.

The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.

Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.

But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.

Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.

All told, at one point in April, Americans were relocating at twice the pace they did a year earlier, according to Cuebiq, a data firm that tracks movement via mobile phones. They continued to move at an elevated rate through mid-May. Cuebiq’s tally includes any trips away from home that last at least three weeks, so it also captures some temporary movement, like people decamping to vacation homes and students moving home from college.

It’s too early to tell how many of these moves are permanent and how, in aggregate, new migration patterns might reshape the country. Some people who left big cities early in the pandemic are realizing they miss working from an office—or their companies miss them, and want them back in their cubicles. Others are staying put because they don’t know when their companies will make them come back.

Still, coronavirus-spurred moving could accelerate a shift already under way from dense, expensive cities to more affordable areas, including small cities and suburbs.

In places like Boise, Idaho, real-estate agents say people are finally breaking ties with the West Coast after years of waffling, and sometimes buying properties sight-unseen.

Telecommuting is fueling many of the moves. Companies like Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. are already declaring their monthslong experiment with remote work a success, giving many workers permanent permission to detach themselves from the office. Other companies that just six months ago would have scoffed at letting employees work from home are embracing it.

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