Robots Haunt the Fight for $15 Minimum Wage

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A rally in New York City to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Credit: The All-Nite Images on Flickr, under Creative Commons

A rally in New York City to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–If you forget your toothbrush or need a cold drink or a midnight snack while staying at the Holiday Inn Express, Crown Plaza or one of two Aloft hotels in California’s Silicon Valley, your room service may come via robot.

"People like getting a delivery from a robot," said Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, the 2-year-old company based in Santa Clara, Calif., that designs the waist-high attendants. "They don’t have to get dressed, or brush their teeth, or tip; just answer the door."

The four service robots, which Savioke rolled out earlier this year, cost the hotels $2,000 a month, and they work a 24-seven schedule; a bargain, particularly considering the recent momentum in cities across the country toward a $15 per hour minimum wage.

"I think that the $15 minimum wage is a great thing," Cousins said, adding that his hotel robots, named "Relay," take on the most mundane jobs. "They deliver things from point A to point B. No one has written on their resume, ‘I know how to ride the elevator by myself without bumping into walls.’ We want to have (people) doing better jobs. We don’t want to pay $15 an hour for something you can’t write on your resume."

Cousins said he hopes to have 50 of his service robots "out in the world" in the near future.

While robotic attendants at every mid-level hotel may still be a few years off, increased use of technology in the service, restaurant and retail industries has already begun to threaten the unskilled and minimum-wage workforce, of which women account for two-thirds and women of color are disproportionately represented, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In 2014, Target introduced self-checkout options at stores across the nation, joining Wal-Mart and numerous supermarket chains. Since 2011, major restaurant chains, including Applebee’s, Chili’s, Olive Garden and Panera, have added such technology as tablet ordering, iPad "cashiers" and GPS-like systems for servers to find tables more efficiently.

In May Amazon, which employs more than 150,000 people worldwide, held a "picking challenge" for which robotics companies from across the globe competed to see whose bot could pick items in the massive warehouses the fastest, though such technology is not yet as efficient as people are.

Technology Advancing Rapidly

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14 percent job growth in the restaurant and fast food industries and nearly 10 percent growth in retail sales between 2012 and 2022, but some say these projections may not account for the speed and economy with which technology is advancing.

Forty-seven percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to computerization during the next two decades, with low-wage and unskilled jobs particularly vulnerable, finds a 2013 Oxford University report.

"There is always incentive to find cheaper ways of delivering goods and services," said Erik Brynjolfsson, professor and director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy, a research partnership with industry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. Brynjolfsson anticipates a shift in the workplace over the next several decades comparable to the industrial revolution, as technology takes on unskilled are repetitive jobs.

The Oxford report, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?," discusses an emerging "technological unemployment (as) hardly a recent phenomenon. Throughout history the process of creative destruction, following technological inventions, has created enormous wealth, but also undesired disruptions."

Some contend that the Fight for 15 campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the U.S. by 2020 – which has seen success in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, among other cities – will push industry to replace workers with technology even more quickly.

In July Democratic Sen. and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders introduced legislation in Congress to make the $15 minimum wage federal law.

"We’re at an interesting point," said Mike Saltsman, research director for the fiscally conservative Employment Policies Institute, based in Washington, D.C. "The kind of increases being proposed are big (and) it’s tough to deny that what’s happening now is linked to increased labor costs."

Saltsman pointed to McDonald’s "hiring" 7,000 touchscreen cashiers in 2011 in several western European locations where minimum wages tend to be higher. As the Fight for 15 takes hold, Saltsman said we may be headed for "a brave new world where there are no unskilled workers."

Why Humans Often Preferred

Christine Cooper, a vice president at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, a private nonprofit research and consulting firm, disagrees. "It’s a common claim: ‘Raise the minimum wage, and we’re going to fire everybody and (use) robots.’ That’s a good sound bite but we haven’t really seen it happen."

Increasing the minimum wage reduces the costs associated with high job turnover, while technology – from restaurant table tablets to robotic pickers – requires considerable capital investment, Cooper said.

Cooper studied the issue and implications for her June report, "Considering Minimum Wage Policy in Los Angeles County," for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who in July approved a $15 minimum wage for the nation’s most populous county to be implemented gradually by 2020. The report found that all of the county’s minimum-wage workers will benefit from the increased earnings. It also found, however, that the increase will cause employment growth to slow and that over the long term "the relative costs of capital and labor may encourage more automation."

"If we’re not paying attention to the intersection of technology and raising the minimum wage, then we’ll inevitably lose," said Simran Noor, director of policy and strategy at the New York-based Center for Social Inclusion. She said the increasing use of technology across all sectors is "a threat but also an opportunity" to unskilled workers, women and communities of color.

With access and education, technology can be an equalizer, she said, adding that the Fight for 15 campaign, which continues to organize and gain support through various social media, is an example of how vulnerable communities can use technology for empowerment.

MIT’s Brynjolfsson, author of the 2014 book "The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies," added that historically technological advances have led to new job creation. "It’s not about slowing down technology, but speeding up our adjustment to it," he said.

Investment in education will be key, he added. With a future including robots to do the mundane and repetitive work, including some research jobs, Brynjolfsson anticipates new job creation in areas such as personal coaching, health care and creative and entrepreneurial fields.

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