When Kroger customers in Cincinnati shop online these days, their groceries may be selected by a robot in a nearby warehouse.
An increase in automation may prove to be an economic legacy of the pandemic. “Once a job is automated, it’s pretty hard to turn back,” said Casey Warman, an economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund this year predicted that pandemic-induced automation would increase inequality in coming years, not just in the United States but around the world.
“Six months ago, all these workers were essential,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing grocery workers. “Everyone was calling them heroes. Now, they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of them.”
Checkers, a fast-food restaurant, experienced a jump in sales when the pandemic shut down most in-person dining. But finding workers to meet that demand proved difficult. So Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee in the Atlanta area, contacted Valyant AI, a Colorado-based startup that makes voice recognition systems for restaurants.
In December, Valyant’s technology began taking orders at one of Gonzales’ drive-thru lanes. Gonzales is getting ready to expand the system to her three other restaurants.
In a survey of nearly 300 global companies by the World Economic Forum this past year, 43% of businesses said they expected to reduce their workforces through technology.
Some economists see the increased investment as encouraging. Automation may harm specific workers, but if it makes the economy more productive, that could be good for workers as a whole, said Katy George, a senior partner at McKinsey.
Other economists are less sanguine. “If we automated less, we would not actually have generated that much less output, but we would have had a very different trajectory for inequality,” said Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Gonzales has raised hourly pay to about $10 for entry-level workers, from about $9 before the pandemic. She acknowledged she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14 to $15 an hour. But doing so, she said, would force her to raise prices so much that she would lose sales.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.