The Interaction Between Technological Innovation & Socio-economic Status

ModernTimesA recent New York Times article documented how the rise of innovative scheduling technology is affecting low-wage employment across the US:

Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.

Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.

Reading the article, it is suprising how the use of this new technology seems to have a class bias.  Innovators like Kronos have created a tool to make service businesses more flexible and efficient, which–on its face–seems like a good thing.  However, the way this is accomplished is by  managers using the technology to maximize companies’ profits by imposing costs associated with disrupted daily routines on low-wage workers.  What seems like a value-neutral effort to improve economic efficiency has achieved its results by having poorer people absorb costs, with the savings then passed on to the multi-million dollar corporations.  There has to be a better way.

In fact, at least one of those corporations agrees.  A subsequent story in the New York Times indicates that, in response to the abuses pointed out in the original article, Starbucks will revise the way in uses the software to create workers schedules, “Starbucks announced revisions on Thursday to the way the company schedules its 130,000 baristas, saying it wanted to improve ‘stability and consistency’ in work hours week to week.”  A positive sign.  Time will tell if a sensible middle ground can be found.

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