In response to years of pressure from labor unions and other activists, a growing number of US cities and states have embraced a $15 per hour minimum wage, and some large employers have followed suit, imposing internal wage floors to show that they share the public’s concern over income inequality and the financial hardships of low-income Americans. Critics of minimum wage hikes have long maintained that they destroy jobs in low-skill fields like retail and food service, especially at a time when employers have the option of automating many of the roles traditionally filled by unskilled employees.
Customer service robots are already appearing on the floors of large retail establishments, but restaurants have proven more resistant to automation, even in the face of rising labor costs. Reuters‘ Lisa Baertlein and Peter Henderson explore some new research showing that minimum wage hikes haven’t displaced many restaurant workers after all:
In spite of improvements in technology, minimum wage hikes between 2000 and 2008 caused little immediate displacement of workers by technology, especially in kitchens, according to a study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and DePaul University. There were slightly more workers per restaurant in 2015 than in 2001, according to data compiled for Reuters by the National Restaurant Association, which opposes minimum wage hikes. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected leisure industry jobs, a broad category that includes restaurants, will grow at 0.6 percent annually, keeping pace with the national average through 2024.
Why isn’t automation happening as quickly in this sector as it is in so many others? Quite simply, robots aren’t very good at this kind of work, at least not yet:
Many kitchen jobs still are too complex for robots, which can’t multitask and don’t necessarily work safely with humans in cramped spaces, experts said. While robots excel at complex calculations and precise, repetitive tasks, they have difficulty doing some things that are easily mastered by small children – such as stacking blocks and sensing objects in space. Moreover, most restaurants serve a range of menu items, each of which might need numerous specialized forms of automation. Sit-down restaurants have additional tasks that are hard to automate, including setting and clearing tables, refilling coffee cups and answering questions about what’s on the menu.
Restaurants are also discovering that customer service has a certain human element that machines can’t quite replicate. Back in May, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook told shareholders that his company probably wouldn’t cut jobs in response to a rising minimum wage; instead, the fast food chain plans to supplement its higher-paid workers’ productivity with new technologies and shift more of them into service-oriented roles.