A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 13, 2020

The Reason Apps, Not Robots, Are Coming For Your Job

Because keeping changes subtle and 'gray' provokes less controversy while enabling greater technological change faster. Which optimizes returns for those implementing automation. JL

Tammy Kim comments in the New York Times:

A subtle form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy, are not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” chipping away at the careers of full-time employees. “De-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is replacing skilled workers with less skilled, ‘disguised employment.’ “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady work for traditional employees.

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.
Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”
His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).
These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.
In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.
Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.
How far has this sort of gig work spread? It’s hard to say. In 2017, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics collected additional data on “contingent workers” for the first time since 2005. It found that only 1.3 percent to 3.8 percent of the work force is involved in independent and so-called gig work, though smaller surveys have shown that 35 percent of Americans do some “freelancing.”
What is clear is that the platform economy has further blurred the lines between who’s employed versus underemployed, unemployed or out of the labor market. And it’s not just a matter of numbers: People fear app-based gig work because it threatens the very concepts of boss and worker, governor and governed.
Corporations are keen to dissolve the boundary between traditional employment and independent contracting. As Mr. Martín watched his work dwindle, his employer, Marriott, and its competitor Hilton looked to Silicon Valley. In 2017 and 2018, according to the National Employment Law Project, the two hotel giants joined with their nemesis Airbnb and the TechNet coalition (including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and many other “innovation” companies), to lobby for a federal bill, the NEW GIG Act, that would, among other things, effectively convert anyone who finds work through an online “platform” into an independent contractor.
Meanwhile, Uber introduced Uber Works, a temping “platform” for prospective servers, dishwashers, caterers, warehouse workers and cleaners. Uber’s goal with the project, which recently expanded from Chicago to Miami, is to funnel Uber drivers and other underemployed workers toward contract jobs posted by temp agencies.
Uber Works and the NEW GIG Act treat apps as a legal turnstile. Spin through, and the limited certainty and benefits that come with being an employee disappear. There is no intrinsic limit to this approach: if prep cooks and hotel concierges, why not dentists and paralegals?
The service sector, in contrast to manufacturing, is just beginning to contend with automation and technological displacement — in the form of robots, apps and algorithms. In hospitality, “We’re right on the edge of the cliff — some of it is already replacing positions: reservations and check-in at the desk,” Elizabeth Stringam, a professor in the hotel school at New Mexico State University, told me. “What we do with those people is up to us as an industry.”
It’s also up to the workers affected. In 2018, Mr. Martín and nearly 8,000 of his Marriott colleagues went on strike, in part over technological concerns. The union representing them, Unite Here, had seen automation, apps and algorithms creep into hotels and casinos around the country. In light of these trends, D. Taylor, the international president of Unite Here, told me, it was essential to make technology “a key point in our negotiations.”
The union’s standard contract now requires employers to give advance notice of technological changes that affect workers’ jobs. Employers must negotiate the terms of such changes and offer training in the use of these technologies. The contract also offers a “soft landing” (that is, severance and retraining options) to workers displaced by automation, and gives bellmen and doormen pay increases to offset tips lost to Uber and Lyft.
Uber’s business model, which depends on classifying drivers as independent contractors, has drawn new scrutiny of what Mr. Benanav, the labor historian, calls “disguised employment,” especially in California. Last year, that state’s highest court issued a key ruling on independent-contractor status, and on Jan. 1, a new law based on that court decision began to strictly limit who can be classified as an independent contractor. The law affects not just Uber and Lyft drivers, but also long-haul truckers, writers, photojournalists and cosmetologists.
Not everyone is happy: App corporations refuse to admit that the law applies, and media companies have chosen to drop freelance writers in California rather than adjust their workloads or convert them into employees. In December, three separate groups — including one led by Uber and Postmates — filed suits claiming that the law was unconstitutional, and Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart have spent tens of millions of dollars on a ballot initiative that would exempt them from the measure. Nevertheless, elected officials in other states are drafting similar bills to combat misclassification.
For all the acrimony in the gig-economy debate, workers seem to understand one another. When Dalida Ahmic, then a room service worker at the Battery Wharf Hotel in Boston, went on strike with Unite Here in September, she watched a stream of Uber Eats and Grubhub delivery workers walk into the lobby. Though these app-based workers posed a threat to her job, she empathized with their situation. “It’s very sad that they have to do this job,” Ms. Ahmic told me, noting their lack of health insurance and their low pay.
Mr. Taylor, of Unite Here, recalled a moment from a recent meeting with bellmen. “They were talking about the problems with Uber and Lyft,” he recounted. “I said, ‘Can everybody get out their phone? Who here has Uber or Lyft on their phone?’ All of a sudden, they were like, ‘Oh.’ So I said, ‘You guys, we’re not stopping this. The question is, what do we do about it, insofar as it affects your job?’”
The conveniences of the app economy need not come with reckless disregard for working people. But only a broad-based fight for fair treatment and lawful classification can dismantle the ideology of labor built into Uber and its ilk: that all workers should be as productive and loyal as lifetime employees, and expect nothing in return.
For too many people today, 40-year tenure, generous health insurance, employer-funded education and pensions are a distant memory. That doesn’t mean, however, that they wish to float about, untethered to all but their smartphones. The robot future may be on its way, but what’s scarier still is the present being shaped by Silicon Valley.


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