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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, retail workers keeping grocery store shelves stocked and ringing up items at checkout were deemed “essential.” They—along with nurses, EMTs, transit and sanitation workers, delivery workers, laundromat staff, and more—kept our communities running. Working face-to-face with customers during waves of deadly outbreaks, cashiers bore the brunt of the impacts in retail. 

Meanwhile, in recent years they’ve also faced the rise of self-checkout systems—a technology that’s far from new but is creating new headaches for workers as market analyses show the market for the machines expands and shipments of the machines rise. Some 9.8 million people work in retail in the U.S., about 200,000 more than in 2010, according to a 2020 U.S. Census report. About 3.3 million are cashiers, an often low-paying job in which women and Black and Hispanic people are overrepresented. Much of the focus on self-checkout technology considers how it will affect consumers, but according to research and cashiers Prism interviewed, it can also impact how workers experience their jobs, from increasing their workload to forcing them to police customers in new and uncomfortable ways.

Milton Holland, a supermarket employee who splits his time between being a checker and overseeing the self-checkout systems, said, “It’s just overwhelming.”

Holland, 56, who is Black, has been working in supermarkets since 1996 in California. He’s been manning the self-checkout stands for about two years at Vons supermarket, where the workload has increased. “It’s like I’m one person working six check stands.”

He helps customers who don’t know how to use the machines while watching to ensure they aren’t shoplifting. Sometimes, he’ll run across the store to help another customer by unlocking the medicine or liquor cabinet for a product—taking on multiple roles at once. It’s a juggling act exacerbated by understaffing

Some stores see self-check systems as a way to mitigate hiring challenges, as low-paid employees seek better opportunities elsewhere during a period of high-quit levels. United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 1.3 million workers in the U.S. and Canada, including Holland, has stated that the use of self-service machines negatively affects grocery workers by eliminating jobs and creating underpaid tasks related to easing the technology’s glitches.

“The use of this check stand reflects the corporation’s greed,” Holland said. “The company wants to save money.” (Vons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) 

Plus, Holland deals with occasionally irate customers—an ongoing problem for workers throughout the pandemic. Once, a customer threatened to fight him after another coworker asked the customer to put a face mask on earlier in the pandemic. “It’s just stressful,” he said.

Jonathan Ortiz, a 21-year-old Latino New York City resident who worked at supermarkets throughout the pandemic, said he finds self-service kiosks are easy to use and quicker than traditional checkout lines.

But not all customers are used to it. Over the winter, his shop in Brooklyn installed a set of four kiosks in an area where few self-service options exist. “You’re gonna get people who don’t know how to use it, and those are the main people that come over there and get angry,” Ortiz said. 

That’s when he steps in to teach people how to use the touch screens and scan their own items. 

“Of course, it’s not going to be easy [on] your first time, but you start to come here and scan all your items on your own, it’s going to be way easier,” he tells customers. He tries not to let the negativity from customers get to him and stay calm—a skill that frontline workers have had to master, more so during the pandemic. 

“It’s mostly the customer,” Ortiz said. “They really like to be right when it’s not right.” Some get frustrated with rising food prices as inflation soars, or upset about having to pay for paper bags. Still, Ortiz doesn’t see the machines as threatening to eliminate his job. Perhaps one day in the future it could, he says. For now, workers say the supermarket is hiring more cashiers. 

Christopher Andrews, a professor at Drew University who studies how self-checkout technology affects work, said the machines have not, ultimately, eliminated jobs as feared. Though cashiers and retail salespeople remain among occupations at the highest risk of being automated and will disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic workers, so far, the number of cashiers has actually increased since 2010. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects cashier jobs will decline between 2020 and 2030, though about 550,000 openings will remain each year due to retirement or occupation changes.

“When I first started researching this during the Great Recession, I thought it was cruel, if not ironic, that companies seemed to be automating jobs at precisely the same time many Americans were desperate for work,” Andrews told Prism in an email. “What I learned in the course of my research is that the cashier occupation, and the retail industry more generally, is characterized by high turnover. For managers, this is where self-checkouts can add some stability and flexibility in managing the front end of the store.”

Retailers have been finding ways to cut labor costs for decades. As Andrews describes in his book, “The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy,” retailers began hiring part-time workers in the 1920s and 1930s to cut costs. Two decades later, women started getting hired as cashiers to save money. And now, teenagers and young adults make up the bulk of frontline retail workers. 

Ortiz’s co-worker, Luz Hernandez, 17, is among the workforce of teenagers keeping grocery stores running. She told Prism on a recent Monday that at first, managers thought the new self-checkouts were going to be useful.

But a few months in, she thinks they’ll regret it. 

Customers “don’t get the point of self-checkout,” Hernandez said. “They just see the worker or whoever’s in charge. They tell them to do the work for them.”

Self-checkouts can also impose financial burdens on employees: Andrews said theft and shoplifting are higher at self-checkout lanes, and Hernandez said her employer has threatened to take money out of workers’ paycheck if someone steals something at the self-checkouts on their watch. 

“Some of it is overt theft by bad actors; others rationalize it as compensation for being solicited to perform unpaid work,” Andrews said.

Hernandez once had a customer walk out with a few dollars worth of items while she was in charge of the self-checkout lines, but a friendly manager spared her the financial consequences. Taking this kind of expense out of employees’ paychecks is illegal in New York, but nonetheless, Hernandez said it has happened to her co-worker. 

Requiring young people—like Hernandez—to police other adults puts workers in potentially awkward or difficult positions, Andrews added.

In a 2019 report by the think tank New America, retail workers expressed a disdain for self-service machines, seeing them as a method to cut hours and eliminate their jobs. Retail workers also felt there were few options to share feedback about their experiences on the frontlines. An author of that report, Molly Kinder, concluded, “While the technology itself is neither good nor bad, how it is deployed can have significant impacts for workers.” Kinder said worker agency and voice should be improved as well as labor laws and social safety nets.

Andrews notes automation and technology can create new job opportunities. “Economic history shows us that while technology tends to disrupt or eliminate jobs, it doesn’t eliminate work. That is an important distinction that often gets lost in the discussion about jobs and technology.”

Sydney Pereira is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She covers the intersection between social justice and health, labor, and climate change. Her work has been published in Gothamist/WNYC, Newsweek, Patch,...