During pandemic, more workers being replaced by robots, new study finds

PHILADELPHIA — The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the trend of robots replacing humans in the workplace, which could result in a recovery from recession that nonetheless costs jobs, according to a new report.

Workers whose jobs can be done by machines suffered more layoffs per capita than those with jobs that aren’t as easily automated, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said in a report. People of color were especially harmed, possibly because of their concentration in service jobs at risk of automation.

The report noted that most job losses during the health crisis are expected to be temporary. Yet, cashiers, hotel staffers, parking attendants and others are at risk of permanently losing work if companies become satisfied with labor-saving technology, or if fears over future pandemics convince firms to stick with machines. The report added that previous recessions resulted in technology replacing laid-off workers, too, leading to “jobless recoveries.”

There already has been anecdotal evidence that the coronavirus has exacerbated job losses to machines. Besides harming business balance sheets, COVID-19 has forced companies to limit contact between customers and employees. The result has been hotels replacing humans with self-check-in kiosks, meatpacking plants deploying slaughterhouse robots and call centers using artificial intelligence to hold conversations. The study specifically cited the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which went cashless and laid off 500 toll workers.

“Policymakers need to rethink how to improve the safety net for workers abruptly displaced by the pandemic, who also face an imminent risk of being replaced by technology, as well as how to prepare for the complex workforce transitions ahead,” the report said.

The study by economists Lei Ding and Julieth Saenz Molina compared automatable jobs — such as shuttle drivers, retail salespersons and bank tellers — to occupations at a low risk of being taken by robots, including nurses, plumbers and teachers. Workers with automatable occupations lost 4.2 more jobs per 100 than the low-risk workers as of August. There were 2.6 million jobs nationwide at risk of permanent automation last month, the study said.

The Philly Fed found that automatable jobs held by workers of color were particularly hit hard, suffering 5.1 more job losses per 100 jobs than those held by Whites. A possible explanation could be that Blacks and Latinos are concentrated in jobs that can be done by robots and can’t be done at home, such as food service or customer service, the report said.

“Pandemic-induced automation is also likely to exacerbate many preexisting racial and economic disparities,” the report said. “The jobs threatened by automation are not evenly distributed across society.”

If the coronavirus crisis becomes a prolonged economic crisis, many jobs could be permanently taken by machines, the report warned. It noted that something similar happened during the years-long recovery from the Great Recession.

“The actual impact of automation thus could be either relatively modest or quite serious, ultimately depending on when the coronavirus can be contained and how firms and the government respond to automation technologies,” the report said.

Christian Hetrick writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.