Eliticia Sánchez has commuted from the Lower Valley to West Valley for work since 1997. She didn’t see a lot of traffic in the early years and recognized other “regulars” — certain cars that joined her on the interstate at the same time every day and others that pulled off at predictable exits.
The scene has changed significantly since then. Though traffic on Interstate 82 doesn’t rival the volume of Seattle or Spokane’s major routes, it has gotten busier, said Sánchez, who lives near Outlook and works at Southeast Washington Aging & Long-Term Care’s administration office in Yakima. Her drive is about 35 to 40 minutes, a little longer in the winter.
“I don’t recognize any of the ‘regulars’ anymore,” added Sanchez, who was the only one commuting from the Lower Valley to her office when she started. Now she’s one of five employees making that drive every work day.
“It’s a good time for me to decompress,” she added.
Nearly all of Yakima County’s commuters drive somewhere within the county for work, with a little more than 4 percent working outside the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates on commuting characteristics for 2013-17. Most Yakima County workers 16 years and older drive to work — approximately 92 percent of them — and 78 percent of them drive alone, according to the survey.
The American Community Survey is an ongoing survey by the U.S. Census Bureau with updates released annually in late September.
It’s fairly common knowledge in Washington that the exploding growth and cost of living in Seattle and its surrounding cities have prompted more west side workers to make their homes elsewhere. It’s a trend that’s been in noticeable in Kittitas County, particularly Upper Kittitas County. The census numbers show that 14.8 percent of Kittitas County residents worked outside the county.
Not as well-known is the fact that some who work in and around Seattle are living in Yakima County. That’s a lengthy drive with even more geographical barriers and it’s still uncommon, but some Yakima County residents already have long drives, such as those who work at the Hanford site near Richland.
Some days, working at home sounds great to long-distance commuters, especially those who battled last winter’s heavy snowfall and windy conditions. Drifting snow covered parts of the interstate at times.
Satellite radio and audiobooks make longer commutes more palatable to those who want more affordable housing or a place in the country. Picking the right vehicle helps, too. Sánchez bought a Nissan Altima in late 2005. She got an all-wheel-drive vehicle last November, when her Altima “was still going like a champ,” with 300,000 miles, she said. Her son is driving it now.
She got her first cellphone so her kids could call if they needed to reach her during her commute, Sánchez said. But that usually wasn’t an issue as she and her husband adjusted their schedules so one was always home with the children.
“Sometimes I would flex my time,” she added. “I am just very fortunate where I work, they allowed me to do that. They would allow me to leave early if the weather was bad.”
Now she’s on a hands-free phone, another option that makes long commutes better.
Advances in software and high-speed internet make telecommuting an option for more workers who live far from their office. But it isn’t for everyone.
“In general there are definitely people who can do it and there are people who can’t,” said Brandon Farmer of Yakima, who has telecommuted since 2014. “Some can. Other people need a little bit more direct management, which requires being somewhere in person.”
Some design work weeks that combine long-distance commutes with telecommuting, as technology makes it easier to stay in touch. About 4 percent of Yakima County workers stay home to do their jobs.
Approximately 40 percent more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options than they did five years ago, according to 2005-17 American Community Survey data crunched by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. But only 7 percent make it available to most of their employees, according to the research-based consulting firm.
Certain occupations embrace telecommuting more than others, with tech, media and the military among them.
Born in Yakima and raised in Selah, Farmer graduated from Selah High School in 1998 and headed to Brigham Young University. While there, he continued to work in IT, an area of interest since he was in high school. He got back into IT after earning his microbiology degree, realizing late during his time in college that computers were his first love.
After college and marriage, Brandon and Kristen Farmer, who graduated from West Valley High School in 2000, settled in Provo. He was less than a mile from work, but they were a 12-hour drive from their families.
“As my siblings went through college, got married and started their families, they all seemed to land here in the Yakima area. I was the only who didn’t,” said Farmer, who has three younger brothers and one younger sister.
He interviewed at different places, all of which required a commute. “The idea of having to start a commute ... I really (didn’t) want to do that,” Farmer said. He talked to his boss and began working from home before they sold their home and moved back to Yakima in August 2014.
“Everybody was here. I wanted to be involved. I wanted my kids to know their cousins, their grandparents,” he said.
His company, Welocalize, is headquartered in Frederick, Md., with about 1,500 employees and offices in Portland and throughout the world. He manages an infrastructure team that includes one person in China, one in Ireland and three in the United States. Farmer holds a meeting for his team once a week and his manager holds another once a week with video conferencing. It’s important to see others’ faces when you’re meeting, he said.
Trust is key as well. “You don’t want to babysit someone. You have to hire professionals,” he added.
Farmer gets up around 6 a.m., dresses like he’s going into work and is at his desk in his office, where he can close the door, at 6:30. He takes a brief morning break to help his wife with their kids, who are ages 7, 5 and 3, and others as necessary, working until 3:30 p.m.
It’s important to have a dedicated space that can be closed off, he said. If his children want something while Farmer is working, they’ll knock. “It gets a little tricky, with the younger kids especially,” he added.
For many telecommuters, getting used to missing out on the social aspect of being in an office can be a bigger challenge than expected.
“Most of the people I talk to who are in my situation, they really do miss the small interactions with people in the office. ... You really have to work to keep yourself involved in things,” he said. “A lot of times people will have impromptu meetings. You’ve really got to stay involved with the people you’re working with. They can forget you’re there.”
Heather Hinze of Yakima knows what it’s like to miss out on the office chatter and finds that her biggest challenge as a telecommuter. “If you’re a real social person, I would definitely advise against it,” she said.
Another challenge of working from home is that some can start to feel house-bound, especially in the winter, she added. And sometimes the learning curve is longer, she said, because she doesn’t have an associate nearby to ask quick questions.
Those considering telecommuting should know their personality — how social and self-sufficient they are, and if they’d enjoy working alone.
Hinze, who grew up in Selah and graduated from Selah High School in 1986, has an associate degree from Yakima Valley College and is credentialed as an accredited pension consultant through the National Institute of Pension Administrators. She has been telecommuting for nearly eight years and is a senior retirement plan consultant for Sentinel Benefits Group in Wakefield, Mass., a full-service benefits company.
Before she started working with Sentinel, she worked for a couple of local CPA firms that offered pension consulting as part of their business, Hinze said. Eventually both firms sold their practice to outside firms.
“The business is so specialized that there are not a lot of local companies that offer it, so I looked outside the area,” she said. “Fortunately for me, it’s the kind of work that is done entirely on the computer so it can be done from anywhere. I answered an online ad and away I went.”
Like Farmer, she strongly recommends having a dedicated office space so those working from home aren’t tempted to watch TV or do housework instead of working. They should get out of that office, too, with a walk, or go out to lunch or errands on their lunch hour.
Hinze dresses professionally for meetings with clients but likes being able to wear sweats or gym clothes while working, too. And she enjoys being able to concentrate without a lot of chatter around her. “I am not a super social person at work, so I am happy working alone and being self-sufficient,” she said.
And though Hinze doesn’t have to drive to work, “I like my commute time,” she added.