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Sonoma County a hot spot for at-home workforce


Freshly showered and shaved, Jeff Thomas gets to work regularly about 7 a.m., settling down at his desk with computer and telephone at hand.

Unlike most workers' offices, Thomas' workplace is in a well-lighted, walled-off corner of the garage at his tract home in Rohnert Park.

His commute for the past 11 years from bedroom to office is about 50 feet, and Thomas wouldn't have it any other way.

"I love it," said Thomas, a sales representative for a promotional products company based in Iowa. "I have no desire to ever work in an office again."

He's part of burgeoning corps of home-based workers, which numbered more than 5.8 million in 2010 -- up more than 1.6 million over the past decade and accounting for 4.3 percent of the nation's workforce, according to a Census Bureau report on Thursday.

Sonoma County is a hot spot in the home-based worker boom, with nearly 1 in 12 workers spending most of their workdays at home.

The county has the fifth-highest concentration of home-based workers in the United States, behind Boulder, Colo., Medford, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M. and Kingston, N.Y., the report said.

All five are upscale areas that "attract talented people who value quality of life," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Stone said he was not surprised by the county's high ranking as a work-at-home incubator, noting that more than 300 people attended the board's first home-based business conference in the mid-1990s, just as personal computers and the Internet improved the pathway for telecommuting.

"We were floored by the response," Stone said.

Many of the conference participants were women in their mid-30s and up with marketable skills or interests who had moved to the county with their husbands who worked for high-tech firms, he said.

The Census report said that people who work exclusively at home have a median personal income of $25,500, while their median household income is $74,000.

In 1993, the board conducted a survey of the county's high-tech sector and found that one-third of the 150 respondents were software developers working at home, Stone said.

More recently, he said, the home-based worker ranks have been swelled with people who have lost jobs as well as those who've been rehired as consultants, saving their employer the costs of benefits.

Nearly half of the nation's home-based workers are self-employed, while almost 40 percent work for private companies.

About 5 percent work for nonprofit groups and an equal number work for federal, state and local governments, the Census report said.

In terms of occupation, nearly 25 percent are in business and financial management, with 16.4 percent in services and 14.6 percent in sales.

Steven Harrison, who was chairman of the Economic Development Board's home-based worker task force in the 1990s, is president and CEO of Vinoshipper, a firm that expedites online shipping of wines for more than 400 U.S. wineries.

"You have total flexibility," said Harrison, who runs the business alone from his Windsor home and has been a home-based worker for more than 15 years. "Your time is your own."

The drawback, he said, is that work is "always there -- you never get away from it."

Instead of coffee breaks with co-workers, Harrison said, he meets clients at coffee shops.

Thomas said he worked in an office for 14 years, also selling promotional items like pens and coffee mugs, before switching to home-based work 11 years ago.

Thomas, who shares his home with his 17-year-old son and a dog, said he enjoys freedom from the 8-to-5 routine. If he needs to call a supplier on the East Coast, he'll head for his office as early as 4 a.m.

But it's also easy to fall into a trap of working 18-hour days. "I've been guilty of that," he said.

Paul Donaldson of Santa Rosa worked for local construction companies for more than 20 years before opting just 10 months ago to start his own construction management and business consulting enterprise.

Working out of a converted bedroom, Donaldson said, he relishes the freedom of no longer being on someone else's payroll, but said the "real joy is having people value my abilities."

Donaldson, a former president of the Sonoma County Alliance, a pro business advocacy group, said he can control his schedule and find time for family-oriented things such as walking his daughter home from school.

The Census Bureau report said that 60 percent of home-based workers stick to a regular daytime schedule, and they overwhelmingly work Monday through Friday and take the weekend off.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.