Pandemic Automation Wave Could Be Bad News for Workers


“You can hire a less skilled worker and have them adapt to our system much more easily,” said Ryan Hillis, Meltwich vice president. “It definitely broadens the scope of who might be behind that grill.”

Mr Hillis said with more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to flow directly into the restaurant, and other technological advances, Meltwich only needs two to three workers a shift instead of three or four.

Such changes, which proliferate across thousands of businesses in dozens of industries, can dramatically alter employee expectations. Canadian economist Professor Warman said technologies developed for one purpose tend to spread to similar tasks, which can make it harder for workers damaged by automation to move into another occupation or industry.

“If an entire labor sector is hit, then where do these workers go?” Professor Warman said. Women and, to a lesser extent, people of color are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.

The grocery job has long been a source of steady, often unionized jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the industry. Self-check-out lanes reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to patrol the aisles for leaks and check inventory; and repositories became more and more automated. Kroger in April 375,000 square meter warehouse with over 1,000 robots bagging food for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering food via drone.

Other companies in the industry are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, spokesperson for Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, said the technology has enabled the company to better serve customers, and it’s a competitive imperative.

“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce costs and deliver better service and value for customers,” he said. “Stop & Shop needs to do the same.”


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