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From health care to education to food supply chains, the novel coronavirus pandemic has drastically disrupted Montanans' sense of "normal." Yet in seeking solutions for the short term, business owners, educators, health care professionals and criminal justice workers have developed fixes that may long outlive the virus's first few waves. In the "COVID Solutions" series, reporters investigate avenues of lasting recovery spurred by the pandemic.

Working From Home in Montana Possibly More Attractive Than Ever

A Blackfoot Communications employee installs conduit for fiber optic cable near St. Ignatius, Montana, June 2020.
Charles Bolte/Yellowstone Public Radio
A Blackfoot Communications employee installs conduit for fiber optic cable near St. Ignatius, Montana, June 2020.

 

This story is part of our series that looks at lasting ways Montana is adapting during the pandemic. It’s funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

For years, economic developers have touted the possibilities for people to live in Montana and work for companies that aren’t here. The COVID-19 shutdown has, in some ways, offered proof of that concept. 

Bob McCauley and his wife live in a lush, shady patch of the Mission Valley just north of St. Ignatius, population 830. Their little spread is filled with birdsong. The dramatic Mission Mountains rise a few miles to the east.

"We've got anywhere from grizzly bears to deer to pheasants to, you know all kinds of aquatic turtles and ducks and geese and swans just nice place to come home to," McCauley says. "It's a real beautiful location. I hurry up to get home."

McCauley and his wife moved here over 20 years ago. He works 42 miles south for the City of Missoula in the streets division. Her job as a judicial assistant to a district court judge is in Polson, 28 miles north.

Like a lot of people, the McCauleys had to handle at least parts of their jobs , and also their son’s schoolwork, from home when the pandemic hit. That was tougher in St. Ignatius than it was in other places.

"The phone connection for our internet was not very good, and this, we're being told, is way more reliable."

McCauley’s referring to the fiber optic cable that’s being installed at his house.

A Blackfoot Communications crew is plowing a narrow ditch near the house. They’re dropping orange conduit into the ground and promised that the McCauleys will have a high-speed fiber connection by the end of the day.

"We're hoping this will solve our internet problem and keep it, you know, have better connection here and faster speed. So that'll help us; like I say, that'll help us a lot," McCualey says.

A study published by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research and MIT says that one third of the nation’s employed workforce shifted to working from home in early April. Some major companies like Twitter, Square, Mondelez and Nationwide are moving toward permanent work from home paradigms.

In Montana, some, like Congressman and Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte, are calling the “work from home” movement a silver lining of the pandemic. He’s been promoting the idea as a politician since at least 2015. Anne Boothe sees the value in that line of thinking.

“More people are understanding that you can get a lot done in a day, working by yourself without interruptions; you're more productive. You're saving your wardrobe expenses; you're saving fuel costs, and you can be just as productive and maintain those communications," Boothe says. 

She’s an economic developer in Montana who grew up in and works from tiny Malta in Phillips County. Boothe has worked in economic development for about 30 years.

She heads up a volunteer working group under the Montana Economic Developers Association. The group launched three years ago and seeks ways to advance remote work in Montana. That’s especially important for Montana’s rural towns, she says.

“The common goals are to increase local employment opportunities to increase the median wage for residents. We all want to retain our youth. We want the 'brain gain' and not the 'brain drain,' and we've been seeing that, particularly in a lot of our rural farming communities or agriculture communities," Boothe says. 

Boothe’s team held workshops and applied for grants. Getting funds to do more has been a roadblock. But the sell is a little easier now.

“We saw these opportunities and saw how they were a great fit for our communities, and now with the pandemic, it's just all of a sudden that the mystery of working remote has been removed," Boothe says. 

Prior to COVID-19, Boothe worked with the state’s Department of Labor and Industry on a toolkit to help employers and employees understand the ins and outs of remote work. The department's deputy commissioner, Kathleen O’Leary, says her office had to figure going remote along with the rest of the state.

Now, a lot more Montanans are paying attention to the work she did with Boothe and others to promote working from home.

"I think what COVID has provided is an opportunity for those people and those employers who may not have tried it before because it requires all to shift so quickly," O’Leary says. "I think it provided a whole new population an opportunity to try it, and for some employers and employees, it has worked really well. For some, maybe it hasn't for all kinds of different reasons. But for that segment of the population that wouldn't have tried it prior to COVID, I think it most certainly has shed light on an opportunity for both employers and employees to look at what this looks like long term."

The appeal of that is one thing, but what about what Bob McCauley experienced? What about shaky internet connections in a huge, not terribly populated state?

Boothe says rural internet connection gets a bad rep. Sure, there are some connectivity gaps across the state, which still ranks dead last in the U.S. for broadband access on broadbandnow.com. But Boothe points out that schools and libraries are well-served and many rural places do have good internet.

Her own house in Malta was connected to fiber 12 years ago. A big push to expand broadband is led by local providers, like the ones Geoff Feiss represents.

"I'm the general manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association, and I represent rural, locally-owned telecommunications providers who serve roughly 70 percent of the state's landmass and probably 30 percent of the consumers," Feiss says.

MTA represents about a dozen telecom companies. In the last several years, they’ve been installing fiber optic cable across the state to upgrade the copper infrastructure. That work mostly prepared them when offices shut down and forced workers home.

The CEOs I talked to with Blackfoot Communications, 3 Rivers and Range have all said they’ve seen COVID-induced upticks in new users and upgraded connections. They, along with Geoff Feiss, also say their networks are handling increased bandwidth demand just fine. Here’s Feiss again.

“Massive numbers of people were shifted from the office to home and generally speaking, were able to carry on their business as usual," Feiss says. 

A spokesperson at the Research and Analysis Bureau at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry says there isn’t solid state level data indicating how many people are working from home or how many people are moving to the state and bringing a job with them.

But Geoff Feiss says the last few months have provided proof that a lot of Montana can continue to work from home.

"COVID turned the theory into reality in a big way suddenly. We knew about remote working, and we've had examples of it, but never did we have a nationwide order to work from home. That changed everything," Feiss says.