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There’s no place like (an office at) home

Telephone agents are a company’s first line of defense in tackling calls. And employing people to work from home is a growing trend.
/ Source: TODAY

Long commute, noisy coworkers, little flexibility — there are some things that can make going into the office every day a real drag. For some, working in an office can be an impossibility, due to a disability or family situation. But increasingly, some companies are finding out that employees may not need to head to the office to get their work done. "Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky takes a look at interesting career opportunities that have some people saying there's no place like home.

Peter Catanese handles hundreds of calls each week for the Internal Revenue Service, and he does it all from his home in southern New Jersey.

"I have a cup of coffee and go to work. Just like anybody else does," said Catanese.

National Telecommuting Institute, a nonprofit organization that places disabled workers with at-home employment, uses Internet technology to enable call center work to be done at home.

"The federal government has out-sourced call center work overseas," said Michael Meyer of the National Telecommuting Institute. "And so we're saying to the federal buyers, if you're willing to do that, we have a workforce here that suffers a 75 percent unemployment rate that is ready to go to work."

For Catanese, who was hit by a car nearly 30 years ago, traditional employment is not an option.

"I have an awful lot of pain from my knees and from other parts of my body,” he said. “I can't work eight hours a day.  I can work two, three, maybe four hours a day."

But those few hours mean more than just a paycheck.

"When you are disabled you don't have a work identity,” he said.  “It's given me back my identity as someone that can walk around and be proud of himself."

How can a company know whether it should consider telecommuting as an option?  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the key is for each company to figure out whether the employee would be able to handle the job without telecommuting, and if the job would be conducive to a work-at-home environment.  While these decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, the EEOC has issued a fact sheet, available on, describing situations where allowing disabled workers to work from home would be reasonable under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

However, there are concerns about this trend.  Some disabled workers would have no trouble getting into the office, and you don't want to make the disabled feel shunted to the side, as if they’re not a part of the office environment.  You also don't want to put the disabled in a position where they feel as if they aren't eligible for promotion or mentoring.

In addition, disabled people often receive Social Security benefits and are allowed to earn only a certain amount without losing those benefits.  For example, a disabled person working full-time can earn up to $830 a month, and part-time up to $590 a month. A person earning more than that would lose their disability payments, though if their income once again fell below those thresholds, the disability payments would be reinstated.

Colorado-based Alpine Access has been placing employees with home-based employment for years.  Big name businesses like 1-800-FLOWERS and Office Depot turn to their 4,000 employees to take calls.

“It's very hard to find work that you can do part-time, that’s good work, that has good pay, that you can do from home,” said Reg Forster of Alpine Access. “It results in happier employees.”

Laura Voigt-Jiminez knows all too well the difficulties of going in to an office every day. 

“My little boy was 8 weeks old when we discovered that he had a brain tumor, and so with all of his medical issues it just became impossible to work outside of the house."

Now this stay-at-home mom finds time to be a stay-at-home employee for a credit finance company.

"I give them a schedule of my availability, and then they just schedule my hours in those time frames," she said.

Another benefit of working at home?  Not having to deal with a commute.

Martha Libby's love of gardening made her the perfect match for 1-800-FLOWERS, as did the chance to avoid getting in the car to go to work.

“I still like associating outside of the home, and talking to people, and doing customer service,” said Libby.

Though she's not ready to stop working, her husband is retired and the flexible hours mean more time together.

Back in New Jersey, Cantanese has discovered an unexpected benefit of working.

"It's also a pleasure to pay my own taxes for a change," he said.