The New York City Economy Tracker is a joint project between Investopedia and NY1, using publicly available data to evaluate the economic health of the city across a variety of metrics.
For the week of September 4, 2023, we’re looking at office attendance in New York City three and half years after the pandemic first shut down the city’s offices, and comparing return-to-office rates across major U.S. metros.
Office Attendance in New York Lags Peer Cities
Return-to-office rates in New York City lag well behind peer metros, according to Kastle Systems’ latest Back-to-Work Barometer.
Office attendance in New York City averaged just 42.6% in August, which was the lowest rate among the five biggest U.S. cities. Among major metros, Houston had the highest return rate at 60%, followed by Dallas at 53.6% and Chicago at 51.2%. Los Angeles, at 48%, was the only other major city with attendance rates below 50%. The average for the 10 biggest U.S. cities was 47.5%, likely dragged down by New York.
In the last week of August just before Labor Day weekend, office attendance in New York City slipped to a paltry 38.2%. This was the second-lowest attendance rate among the 10 cities tracked by Kastle Systems, ahead of only San Jose’s 36.1%.
Persistently low office attendance has concerned public officials, including Mayor Eric Adams, who since last year has called on employers to get their workers back to the office.
Hybrid and Remote Work Have Become Permanent
What accounts for these low figures? The pandemic led to substantial shifts in how Americans do their jobs, with hybrid and remote work becoming a permanent fixture in the labor market. In few places is remote work more popular than New York City, where 35.5% of the average workweek is spent working remotely.
This is more than a percentage point above the 10-city average tracked by Kastle Systems, and a stunning 8 percentage points higher than the average for cities outside of the ten biggest.
Only in Los Angeles did workers spend a greater share of the week working from home, at 36.2%. On the flip side, Chicago had the lowest work-from-home rate among the five biggest metros, averaging 30.8%.
Working from home could be here to stay, barring a shift in company policies that allow employees to telework full-time. Teleworking is distinct from working from home, as it involves working from a third location, such as a coffee shop or library, that isn’t home or the office. Teleworking isn’t widespread, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey for early August, which showed 63% of households in New York state had no one that teleworked in the previous week.
By contrast, households were more likely to work from home, with 12% of respondents doing so for the entire five-day workweek. With the enduring popularity of work from home, it’s unlikely that office attendance in New York City will return to anywhere near pre-pandemic levels in the near future.
The Burden on Public Transportation
Lagging office attendance has also burdened the city’s public transportation system, as depressed ridership translates to lower revenues and a budget shortfall. Ridership for the MTA subway, Port Authority’s PATH trains, and the Long Island (LIRR) and Metro North railroads has consistently lagged well behind pre-pandemic levels.
As of August, LIRR ridership lagged its pre-pandemic baseline by 24%, while the MTA subway and Metro North railroad had roughly 30% fewer riders.
PATH trains had the biggest ridership declines, down 42% from pre-pandemic levels.
The MTA projects extended budget shortfalls due to lagging ridership, even after federal pandemic aid expires in 2024.