The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to intervene in a fight among states over taxing income from remote work may spark a jurisdictional revenue war. In August, the Court refused to take up a lawsuit by New Hampshire against Massachusetts’ practice of levying income taxes on Granite State residents employed by Bay State companies but working from home during the Covid lockdowns. Now New Jersey officials, who filed an amicus brief in the case because the state’s telecommuting residents are similarly taxed by New York, have proposed a law that would let the state tax telecommuters, including possibly tens of thousands of Empire State residents now working from home but employed by Garden State companies. The in-your-face legislation also provides incentives for Jersey residents to challenge New York’s law in tax court—one of the only venues left to residents after the Supreme Court decision. Given that several hundred thousand New Yorkers once commuted to other states to work and may now be staying home to telecommute, Albany risks losing revenues.
Beginning in March 2020, Covid restrictions brought a sharp rise in telecommuting, or working remotely from home. Studies have suggested that, during the pandemic’s initial phases, up to 36 percent of all private-sector employees, or about 43 million people, worked at home at least one day a week, and 15 percent, or about 18 million, telecommuted full-time. Census data before the pandemic found that as many as 6 million workers regularly cross state lines to go to their jobs. So it’s likely that several million current telecommuters have jobs with firms in another state. In New Hampshire, about 15 percent of residents with jobs—some 84,000 workers—commuted to Massachusetts pre-pandemic.
New Hampshire and Massachusetts are fighting over whether the Bay State still has the right to tax the incomes of 103,000 former commuters now working from home in New Hampshire. But this tax spat deals with issues that spread far beyond the Massachusetts border — it has national implications and could impact millions of Americans.
Because of this, scores of tax organizations and states have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Granite State. In fact, an analysis by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation estimated at least 2.1 million Americans that previously crossed state lines for work are now working from home in accordance with public health guidelines.
This shift will be a welcome change for many employees, especially those who used to have long, arduous commutes. But those who go remote on a full-time basis will incur at least one cost: paying for extra workspace at home. Such expenses are not trivial. A recent working paper by Christopher Stanton and Pratyush Tiwari of Harvard University estimates that, between 2013 and 2017, American renters who worked from home spent roughly 7% more of their incomes on housing than similar workers who commuted to the office. Homeowners who worked remotely spent an extra 9% on their mortgage payments and property taxes.
Both employers and households will find it easier to leave major job centers as technologies made commonplace by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a rethinking of the geography of work, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.
The study draws on survey data projecting that a third of workers could be permanent telecommuters by the end of 2021 and discusses implications of these trends for transportation, municipal finance, and wealth migration. While worst-case scenarios could bring a level of disinvestment in places like New York City not seen since the 1970s, even a mid-range scenario suggests a significant relocation of jobs and potentially wealth.