Income inequality is a major issue. Current minimum wage levels are unsustainable for individuals and families, especially those living and working in New York City. Executive compensation, economic mobility, money in politics — these are all problems that make it seem like the decks are stacked against everyday Americans. All of these concerns are valid, and there is certainly room for improvement. Workers in this country have the right to strike and argue for greater pay, and $15 an hour would be a more sustainable wage for workers currently living on minimum wage. However, the Fight for $15 will not have a lasting impact for one major reason — automation.
Even if this campaign somehow succeeds in raising the wages of food service workers to the desired level of $15, automation will soon eliminate the majority of jobs that would benefit from the raise. Increasing wages for human workers gives corporations an even greater impetus to invest in technology. Using software interfaces to take orders and eventually having robots make food is preferable for both companies and consumers. Just as people quickly adopted GrubHub and Seamless because of their efficiency, businesses and consumers will adopt and prefer these interfaces to human interaction. McDonald’s, Chili’s, Panera Bread and a variety of other restaurant chains have been experimenting with automated-ordering kiosks for the past few years. Multiple JFK airport terminals have hundreds of iPads that are used for taking food orders. Employees costing businesses more would only amplify the push for this ordering method. In addition to jobs at the counter, tasks in the kitchen will be handed off to robots in the not too distant future — burger flipping robots
The current argument used by the Fight for $15 campaign is that the wages they are currently being paid are insufficient. It is hard to argue with stories of people struggling just to make ends meet, especially when McDonald’s — the main target of the campaign’s rage — has a significant public image problem. The reality, however, is that the repetitive tasks the workers do are not worth $15 an hour. It is especially difficult to justify that wage when McDonald’s is struggling to keep revenue up.
The world where cashiers are replaced with apps and burger flippers are replaced with robots is already here. Asking for a raise may be the only way for workers to continue to get by, but it is an unsustainable solution that merely accelerates the push for automation. There never will be an optimal time to ask for greater pay because their jobs are disappearing. The technology to replace them is here, and it is ready for prime time.
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A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 21 print edition. Email Matthew Tessler at [email protected]