As COVID Went, So Went the Nation: The Results of the 2020 American Time Use Survey


by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“Suspect each moment, for it is a thief, tiptoeing away with more than it brings.”—John Updike, American novelist

Since 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released the results of the previous year’s American Time Use Study (ATUS) during the following June or July. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic was time’s greatest thief in 2020. In addition to stealing time from American workers, the pandemic affected ATUS interviews all year long. None took place from March 19 to mid-May. As a result, the 2020 ATUS is missing data for two months… but that doesn’t mean the data collected were useless. Far from it.


The most obvious difference this year isn’t any real surprise. The number of people working at home nearly doubled in 2020, as COVID-19 forced employers to either shut down or allow their workers to telework, using technology and methodologies they had previously avoided or underutilized. New technology and increased familiarity with Zoom, Skype, and other programs made “homework” a greater success than ever before. Sometimes, when there’s no other choice, Americans step up and not just make something work, but excel at it. This was one of those times.

In the 10 months surveyed in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people working from home on days they worked shot up from 22% to 42%. Men spent an average of 36% of worktime working from home, up from 20% in 2019, while women pulled off a whopping 49%, rising from 26% in 2019. Meanwhile, commuting and other travel time (store visits, vacations, etc.) dropped significantly across all demographic groups, including both workers and non-workers. As a reminder—or if you’ve never reviewed ATUS data—ATUS samples all demographic groups aged 15 and above. This includes full-time students, most of whom don’t work, as well as the retired, the homeless, and those who choose not to work, including homemakers and full-time parents. That said, millions of citizens were also out of work due to the risk of contagion and the need to maintain social distancing. An average of 39% of the population worked in 2020, as opposed to 43% in 2019.

This sharp increase in the jobless rate resulted in the average time spent at work on workdays dropping by about 17 minutes, from 7.7 hours in 2019 to 7.6 hours in 2020. Some might find it odd that these numbers don’t quite reach the standard eight hours per day, but keep this in mind: “employed persons” includes both full-time workers and part-time workers. Some individuals worked more than eight hours on a most days, some less. Average time worked at home per day rose from 3.6 hours in 2019 to 5.8 hours a day in 2020. Part of the disparity in the numbers between those previously recorded was that the 7.6 hours were for the average workday, while the 5.8 hours were for all days, whether workdays or not, including weekends and holidays.

Those Americans able to work in 2020 worked as hard as ever, though their numbers were down significantly. The number of full-time workers was 130,087,000 in 2019; in 2020, the number fell to 120,949,000, a drop of 9,138,000 workers. Over nine million willing full-time workers were unemployed during the pandemic. The number of part-time workers decreased by 2,034,000, from 36,823,000  to 34,789,000. Therefore, at least 11,172,000 workers were out of work in 2020.

Taking It Easy

We all know what we did with our leisure time in 2020: we stayed home. Still, home-based leisure activities were up only slightly. We spent about 32 minutes more per day on leisure activities in 2020 than we did in 2019, likely reflecting the 26 minutes per day no longer spend commuting to work, the decrease in daily work-time, and the fact that leisure activities are easier to access at home. Most of us preferred to watch TV and play computer games.

Many of us had no choice but to increase our leisure-time activities, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and, in many cases, lack of work. While some trades enjoyed more work, and many made the transition to home-based work, some could not, as they required work outside the home (for example, retail stores and construction). The stats that show us working less last year while playing a bit more result entirely from the pandemic and the measures taken to slow it. I suspect most workers would much rather have been working than staying home, trying to find things to do.

© 2021 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.