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News Roundup: Gig Economy Workers Replaced by Robots?

August 16, 2019 Updated: September 8, 2020

Postmates Wants to Eliminate Human Couriers in San Francisco

The company is expected to start replacing its human workers with sidewalk robots for food delivery orders in San Francisco. Postmates is set to test its delivery robots this year. This would make San Francisco one of the first cities to formally allow companies to test autonomous delivery robots under a new pilot program. While the company claims its human engineers can successfully operate the robots remotely, anyone who has tried to navigate a busy city sidewalk during rush hour knows that’s not so simple.

Even more troubling is the fact that this is just the latest threat to already struggling workers in the gig economy trying to scrape together a living on low wages and small tips that don’t always make it to their pockets. The result could be that customers who care about workers will now switch to delivery companies not using robots to get rid of their workers.

10 Cities with Jobs Most At Risk to Automation

A new report found that the U.S. cities with the highest concentrations of jobs at risk to automation are in the South and on the East Coast. Nearly all of the cities in the top 10 also ranked in the bottom third of U.S. cities for median annual income.

The takeaway is that not only will millions of Americans lose their jobs to automation, it will hurt low-income workers who are already the most vulnerable in our economy.

Nevada ranked first in the study on states that will be most affected by automation, with almost 600,000 jobs at risk in the Las Vegas metro area alone. Florida is also especially vulnerable with four of its metro areas in the top 10.

Retail Automation Could Drive Away Baby Boomer Customers

While some retailers rush to embrace automation, many experts warn that businesses making this move could lose their Baby Boomer customers who expect a higher level of service from human employees instead of self-serve machines. One analyst notes that “a completely automated experience is less likely to find success on the customer-facing side” of retail. Experts also highlight the importance of human workers in “high-end fashion or high-end restaurants,” which “tend to be associated with very high levels of service.”

Investing in human workers is especially important in the grocery industry because “there always will be a subset of people who want to choose items like perishables in a tactile environment” rather than having a company like Instacart pick their food for them. Customers reward businesses that provide good service. We will soon see how wise it was for many retailers to push headfirst into automation.

Number of the Week: 0

That’s the number of human workers at a McDonald’s in London who will be able to help you get your Big Mac and chicken nuggets. To place an order, customers use an ATM-sized touchscreen kiosk. The location will also offer no seating and comes as the company has added an order-and-pay app to over 22,000 restaurants, further eliminating human workers from the customer experience.

McDonald’s is also testing AI voice and facial recognition technology as part of its attempt to digitize the drive-thru experience. With this aggressive move to eliminate employees, many may soon be missing the human touch in customer service so many have counted on for so long.


Any upcoming stories about the impact of automation on the retail industry and the economy?

If you’re interested in speaking with UFCW, email awhite@www.ufcw.org for a quote, statistics, or interviews with workers in retail and other sectors of the economy.