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When the 2019 American Community Survey was released, it was clear to demographer Hamilton Lombard of UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service that something odd was happening in Charlotte County.
While the rest of the state’s “work from home” numbers seemed correct and attributable to those who telework, the very rural and disconnected county also ranked highly. Charlotte came in third for remote workers, just behind Nelson and Westmoreland counties; 8.97 percent of its workforce reported that they “work from home.” But working from home means something different there, where broadband is scarce. It would seem, that its these opposing market forces that have forced people to create home-based businesses. Conversations with experts reveal two unlikely groups that make the county a hub of home-based work: the Amish and Avon ladies.
Dan Witt, county administrator for Charlotte County, oversees economic development. He called the numbers “very surprising.” He suspects many of these self-reported home-based workers are small, home-based contractors, tradespeople, or those with part-time homes-based sales operations like Avon and Mary Kay.
For example, lifelong Charlotte resident and Board of Supervisors member Hazel Bowman Smith thinks that lack of internet access has meant locals had to get creative when looking for work. She sells Avon and said her home-based business has done well because with a lack of stores in the county —no Walmart, no department stores at all — she can provide goods that are in demand. She’s been a representative for 34 years.
“There’s a lack of good paying jobs in the county,” she said. “Almost everyone commutes out. If you don’t want to do that, you invent a job.” She knows of photographers, people selling clothes or handmade goods from their homes.
But Witt expanded on that picture. “We also have a lot of agriculture and Amish,” he said.
According to Witt, the Amish population is the county’s largest growing group. The settlement has added multiple schools in the last three years, he said. And more and more outsiders are getting glimpses at Amish life. Two years ago, a tragic wreck between a car and a horse and buggy killed the two riders. And Amish-made products show up at local markets.
Edsel Burdge, Jr., research associate at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, compiles the center’s annual Amish population reports. He confirmed that the Charlotte County settlement is expanding — fast. He calculates these estimates from several sources: primarily almanacs published by state or settlement-type annually, Amish newsletters and newspapers that announce births, deaths and other movements, and some Amish he corresponds with through letters.
The settlement in Charlotte is an outgrowth of the St. Mary’s Amish, called that because beginning in the 1940’s over a cultural dispute some more conservative Amish left Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and relocated to St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Rising land prices due to the location close to the nation’s capital and a naval base have prompted this community to seek out cheaper, abundant farmland. He said the St. Mary’s Amish are restrictive about technology, “and these folks really like farming.” Cue Charlotte County, Va.: rural, free of broadband, and cheap by the acre.
They began settling in Southside Virginia in 1997 and now total roughly 70 households and 500 people, Burdge said. Their directory in 2019 showed 68 households and 451 people. Three households from a like-minded community moved in since then, and there were 24 babies born and two deaths in 2020. In 2021, 23 babies were born.
“Over four years, they’ll add another 100 souls. That’s an engine of growth.”
And they generally don’t lose their population. He estimates 80-95 percent of children remain Amish as adults and that number trends higher in conservative communities like the St. Mary’s settlement.
As for whether they could affect the Census, he said it’s possible.
“This group would not be opposed to answering the Census questionnaire if it showed up in the mail,” he said. “And they certainly don’t commute to work. On their own, they may not be statistically significant enough to sway the whole picture but could certainly boost an already upward trend.”
Lombard could also see the Amish checking the “work from home” box on a Census form. Many work out of their homes and don’t just do one thing. According to Burdge, the tobacco and sawmilling background of Southside would be interesting to this group, since they have high earning potential. But they are also very savvy, he said, and tend to find niches to work in. That could be goat dairying, farming in-demand produce or baking. They’re adaptable, he said, and mobile — always looking for opportunity.
Certainly, 500 is not insignificant when talking about a locality that has a population of around 11,000 people.
These “work from home” numbers come from a question on the American Community Survey that asks, “of those ages 16 and over who were employed and at work in the previous week, on the method of transportation usually used to get to work.” Home-based workers are those who reported ‘‘work from home’’ on this question.
Nelson and Westmoreland counties led the state in remote workers with 11.47 and 9.06 of their workforces reporting this mode of employment, respectively. That makes sense when thinking about how we define working from home now — connecting with a larger company through reliable broadband, Lombard said. Nelson is just outside Charlottesville and Westmoreland is an easy commute to DC while also having reliable network links.
Virginia’s top work-from-home counties
Percentage of workers who work from home. Note that these figures were compiled before the pandemic so the figures may now be higher.
- Nelson County: 11.74%
- Westmoreland County: 9.06%
- Charlotte County: 8.97%
- Northampton County: 8.7%
- King and Queen County: 8.47%
- Albemarle County: 8.46%
- Winchester: 8.35%
- Fluvanna County: 8.34%
- Powhatan County: 8.18%
- Northumberland County: 8%
The other counties highly ranked in this respect follow these same lines — clustered around a major city like Washington D.C. Richmond, Roanoke or the Hampton Roads area. Northampton, King and Queen, Albemarle, Winchester, Fluvanna, Powhatan, and Northumberland counties round out the top of the list (those above 8 percent). Charlotte is the outlier of the list.
There were 11,529 people in the county as of 2020, down from 12,586 a decade before. With their workforce over age-16 totaling about 6,300, that means 567 people “work from home.”
Charlotte has natural, unspoiled beauty in spades, but its remoteness means the median value of a home is only $110,000. The number of households with a computer totaled about 70 percent when these numbers were captured, but those with internet capability drops to just under 60 percent.
Compare that to Nelson, where the population similarly declined between decades and now rests at 14,700. Ten percent more have computers and access to internet. The median home there is worth more $235,000. Westmoreland, on the other hand, gained about 1,000 residents between decades with 18,400 now. And its citizens are well-appointed: 85 percent with computers, 75 percent with internet.
Lombard said moving forward, rural counties could benefit from remote work the way Westmoreland has. The population of rural Virginia is aging, he said, due to the outflow of young people looking for work and education. That trend has been going on for a long time. But because it is so pronounced, halting the outflow of young adults won’t reverse the trend because — notwithstanding the Amish in Charlotte — deaths outnumber births.
That’s what interested him in the growth of people working from home: they can live wherever they want with a broadband connection. Those numbers were ticking up before the pandemic. He said we won’t know the real impact of COVID-19 on remote work for another year or two as data becomes available but believes it will have accelerated. Even before the pandemic, people were moving to rural areas for a better way of life. The rural decline may well be declining.
The problem in Charlotte County is broadband.
“It’s a regional issue,” said Terra Bailey Napier, executive Director of South Central Workforce Development Board. She works out of the Charlotte County office, helping people transition into new careers with resume reviews, finding job opportunities and facilitating training. Most of the people she sees are going into truck driving, manufacturing, logging and healthcare. She noted that in Charlotte, especially, people leave the county for work.
During a recent search of her database, the only remote job in the area was one for the Department of Motor Vehicles call center but needed to be based in South Boston. The town is a popular designation for workers in Charlotte because of its logging industry. But Microsoft’s data center in Mecklenburg, the hospital in Prince Edward, or other jobs in the surrounding counties, also pull employees.
Napier said she’s hoping expanded broadband access in the future will allow locals to collaborate with Microsoft from their homes and allow them to leverage the existing IT programs at local schools.
Witt said it’s not a new struggle for the county. In the 1950’s, he said, they were scrambling to get basic utilities like electricity and telephones into homes. Now they’re doing it again, as internet becomes a basic utility for Americans.
“Our internet is terrible and so is our cell phone coverage,” he said frankly. “It was a real problem while schools were close in-person for the pandemic. We had to set up wi-fi hot spots in parking lots for students so they could do their work.” Since the county’s students had such difficulty doing basic tasks online, he highly doubts anyone else is teleworking there.
He is hoping for something of a reversal when broadband internet comes to the county in the next few years. In December, it was announced Charlotte County was one of the localities in the West Piedmont and Southside Planning District Commissions that were awarded $87 million and $69 million respectively to build fiber broadband to unserved locations and achieve universal coverage. Amelia, Bedford, Brunswick, Campbell, Halifax, Mecklenburg, Nottoway and Pittsylvania counties will also benefit from the grant.
“We can attract people who want to work from home and have a high quality of life,” he said. Real estate agents have told him sales fell through because of the lack of broadband and they are anticipating an uptick once fiber is installed.
In fact, Bowman Smith ran for the county’s board of supervisors on a platform of helping local get access to internet since broadband is so scarce.
She actually retired recently from a more “traditional” remote job, working with social service departments throughout the state on behalf of Virginia Tech. But that job required extensive travel and weeks on campus, too. But she was determined to live in her home county. She’s hoping increased access to internet will allow more people to stay local and work from home.
“We have great people,” she said. “They are our backbone. And we don’t have the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a laid-back way of life with lots of leisure activities.”
More on remote workers:
- The demographics of rural Virginia and how remote workers could change some of those trends.
- Why is Nelson County No. 1 for remote workers?
- A reality check on remote workers.
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