All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1988

Home-Based Work: New Opportunities for Women?


Joanne H. Pratt’s studies of home-based workers have been published extensively in scholarly and trade publications. This article is adapted from her report, “Legal Barriers to Home-Based Work,” published by the National Center for Policy Analysis. 7701 N. Semmens, Suite 800, Dallas, Texas 75247.

The activities of women in the labor market reveal two contradictory trends. On the one hand, women are better educated and have more job skills and training than ever before. On the other hand, a substantial number of women are leaving executive suites and returning home to have children and care for their families.

Is there a way for women to resolve the conflict between the career goals for which they have been trained and the family goals that many want to pursue? For many women, the answer is home-based work. Surveys show that:

• As many as 23 million people are using their homes as a place of work.

• Among businesses that are run exclusively out of the home, more than 70 per cent are run by women.

Women are talcing advantage of a number of important economic and technological trends. Advances in computer technology mean that millions of workers can “telecommute” from their homes. The growth of the service economy is opening the doors for millions of small businesses. Most are being launched from the home.

• Of the 8.2 million sole proprietorships in the U.S. in 1980, 63 per cent were located in someone’s home.

• While the number of new sole proprietorships is increasing at a rate of 3.7 per cent per year, those started by women are increasing at a rate of 6.9 per cent per year.

Despite the enormous economic and social benefits created by home-based work, those who work from their homes face a maze of legal uncertainty arising from Federal, state and local regulations.

Local Laws. About 90 per cent of all U.S. cities place restrictions on home-based work. These include requirements that no outside employee may work in the home; only one family member may work in the business; only one business may be operated from each home; only one room of a house may be used for business purposes; a separate entrance must be maintained for business customers, and no business inventory may be stored in a garage. Among the many and sometimes bizarre regulations:

• In Blaine, Minnesota, a home-based tutor in math, English or a foreign language may not tutor more than one student at a time.

• In Long Beach, California, ministers, priests, and rabbis may not give religious instruction in the home.

• In Dallas, Texas, home-based businesses may not be listed in the yellow pages of the telephone directory.

• In Danville, Illinois, no one may sell goods in a home other than by filling an order previously placed by telephone.

• In Southern Pines, North Carolina, there is a total ban on retail sales in the home and no inventory may be displayed in the home.

• In Downey, California, a garage may not be used for home-based work.

• In Rockford, Illinois, there can be no more than one home occupation in any single residence.

• In Chicago, there is virtually a total ban on home-based work, including a ban on connecting a home computer to an office computer.

State Laws. Many states ban entire categories of products from home production. These include cigars, artificial flowers, articles of food and drink, toys, dolls, bandages, purses, feathers, children’s clothing, and cosmetics. When home production is allowed, it is often restricted to a small part of the labor market:

• In Hawaii and Illinois, the only people al-lowed to work in the home are people who are unable to leave home.

• In Massachusetts, no one under contract with an employer or business outside the home may produce goods in their home.

Federal Laws. After a protracted court battle, the U.S. Department of Labor has managed to liberalize restrictions on home knitting. However, Federal law still bans home production (for sale) of women’s garments, embroidery, handkerchiefs, jewelry, buckles, mittens and gloves.

Many of these regulations needlessly interfere with valuable economic activity and have no apparent valid social purpose. They threaten to stifle one of the most important and growing sectors of our economy, and to place obstacles in the way of the economic and social goals of an ever-increasing number of women.