Lay in Store

For warehouse employees facing automation, the future of work is an open question

The Oct. 21 installment of the New York Times' "Op-Eds From the Future" series envisions Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiling to the media an alleged state-of-the-art, human-free robot-run fulfillment center in Phoenix, circa 2034. Except it still needs people, and relies on independent contractors that don't receive benefits.

That piece was plausible fiction. The actual impact of technology on warehouse workers remains to be seen.

An extensive Oct. 22 academic report on the future of warehouse work examines the issue. Santa Fe resident Beth Gutelius, an associate director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, co-authored the report and spoke with SFR about her findings. The interview has been edited for space and clarity. The full report can be read online at:

Your report indicates that in the short to medium term, new technologies likely will not cause widespread job loss. That means Elizabeth Warren was right in the Oct. 15 Democratic debate when she said the threat of automation is overstated?

I would agree with that, broadly. We can't know. Even if we can quantify with some assurance—which is questionable—how many tasks are susceptible to automation, we don't know how many jobs will be created; we don't know how jobs are going to change. I think part of her point is that instead of assuming we're going to have massive job loss in 20 or 30 years, what's going to happen in the next 10 years? Because that's actionable. You can actually shape that … and then what happens 20 years from now gets built on whatever precedent you've set … and in the end, hopefully, it's a better outcome for workers.

What was the impetus for your study?

It was really the whole future of work conversation, which … has been laser focused on job loss and automation. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and Working Partnerships, who commissioned this, were interested in a more nuanced look.

Does the warehouse sector serve as a bellwether for the larger workforce in these issues?

UC Berkeley commissioned five reports on industries people say are going to be the most disrupted by automation and technology. Warehousing is one of those that gets trotted out as an industry that's ripe for transformation and, in many ways, it is. In some ways, manufacturing is more illustrative because it has a much longer history of automation and technological change that I think is now informing this wave of warehouse automation.

Warehousing seems like an industry with some of the most vulnerable workers in the workforce.

I think that's definitely true. The stats are that 66% of frontline warehouse workers are workers of color, whereas 37% of the overall labor force is comprised of workers of color. So, for sure, it's an industry that will see the disproportionate impacts of technology very clearly because it will affect those communities first. My big questions in general about technology and work are: What are the long-term physical and psychological impacts of these new technologies? Warehousing is a really interesting case for that because it is very manual work right now. So, there is real potential to improve the jobs if you take out some of the most grueling, arduous things. And yet it's the choices people are making about how those technologies get implemented that counteract the opportunity to improve those jobs.

Your report talks about veering away from the idea of talking about the future of work in a fated way. Why is this important?

I think the idea of any outcome being inevitable shuts down our creativity and the broadness and boldness with which we think about how we might actually tackle a problem. This report tries to make the argument: How would it look different if workers actually had a real voice in how technologies play out in the workplace?

You say that automation is making employees’ job harder by limiting their human interactions and by using technology to track their actions. Can you elaborate?

Part of making a job more efficient is focusing the worker further and further on the task at hand, and how quickly they are accomplishing it. For example: They have these voice headsets constantly telling the worker the next place to go, how many items to grab, to scan, whether they have it right or not, and it really reduces that worker's ability to interact with someone else. The second one, [and it's] the most departure from what we've seen, is the ability for these technologies to track workers and monitor them and nudge them in ways that I say in the report is granular, scalable and relentless—a single manager couldn't do that before.

Is Amazon’s Mission Racer a real thing?

It's a real thing. Basically, it takes what is a very monotonous job and tries to spice it up. There are a few different interfaces: one is a Tetris, one is a race track. So your pick rate—the speed at which you're grabbing the items and scanning them and putting them in the box—is translated on the race track to a little car that with each pick zooms forward, and you're on a track on the interface with your coworkers, who are also driving cars. So gamification is supposed to—in its best light—help [make] these very monotonous jobs … more exciting. Some of the real problems come in when you're pitting people against their co-workers; there is a real dark side to that.

You mentioned you’re trying to shop less at Amazon?

I … only recently decided to change my consumption patterns. I know about this industry. Most of us don't. We don't see these workers. We don't see how our orders get fulfilled, and it's like magic. It's not magic: Someone's body feels your click. It's a very direct link, actually, to someone else's hardship, so I'm trying to align my shopping with my values.

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