American workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centres have long worried that their employers would find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought that threat to service workers, too. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long done by low-wage staff.
But rather than robots, it is the ubiquitous QR matrix bar codes that are replacing humans.
Many restaurants have begun to experiment with QR codes and order management systems such as Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones instead of with human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores including Circle K are experimenting with the computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to allow customers to make purchases without standing in a checkout line at all.
The shifts mean that some of the 1.7m leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs the US economy has lost since its February 2020 high are unlikely to return. “With these jobs, there was always some risk of automating but the push was not there,” said Casey Warman, a professor at Dalhousie University who specialises in labour economics. “Covid nudged those jobs.”
Many business owners say they are still desperate to hire human workers, but a months-long worker shortage has made them hard to find. Economists say the risk of contracting the Delta coronavirus variant combined with expanded unemployment benefits and closed schools have kept some workers at home.
Labour economists say workplaces regularly make leaps in automation during economic downturns, as tighter margins force them to be more productive with fewer resources. Repetitive jobs are the most vulnerable.
Thousands of administrative assistants, telemarketers and payroll clerks were replaced by computers during the 2007 financial crisis, according to a paper from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.
“This happened before and it’s happening again,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow who studies technology at the Brookings Institution. Employers have focused on using automation to speed up distribution centres and supply chain operations in the years after the recession. But the Covid crisis drove the adaptation of automated customer service tools as both consumers and business owners looked to reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible, said Muro.
“This whole thing has been a big product placement [advertisement] for tech solutions,” Muro said.