R2-Me2? How Should Employers Respond to Job Loss Caused by Robots?

05 February 2018 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Authors: Gregory W. McClune

There is no question that the use of robots, along with other similar technological changes in the workplace, will continue to eliminate or downgrade jobs. Indeed, it has been estimated that on average, each workplace robot eliminates six jobs. This article will examine (1) the impact such changes will have on women and (2) whether these changes can be subject to legal challenge as prohibited gender discrimination.

The gender pay gap has become a much debated and controversial topic, but this article will stay out of the fray. However, data produced by the consultancy firm Korn Ferry has concluded that women in Britain make just one percent less than men who have the same function and level at the same employer.  Therefore, some have suggested that the main problem today is not necessarily unequal pay for equal work, but rather the forces and circumstances that lead women to be forced into and stuck in lower-paid jobs at lower-paying organizations. According to The Economist, this is the true gender “pay gap,” which is a much more difficult problem to solve.

Current research suggests that, unless addressed, this gender “pay gap” will increase rather than decrease. Last month, a report to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, predicted that “artificial intelligence, robotics and other digital developments,” and the consequent job disruption, are likely to widen rather than diminish the gender pay gap. See “Towards a Reskilling Revolution” at p. 3. Citing statistics published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report concluded that of the 1.4 million U.S. jobs that are projected to become “disrupted” because of robotic and other technological changes between now and 2026, 57 percent will be held by women.

But there could be good news for those concerned about gender wage equality. The report argued that an increased awareness of the impending effect of these changes, along with a concerted plan by governments, employers, businesses, labor unions and employees themselves to retrain or “reskill” disrupted workers, will present displaced workers with more opportunities for jobs at higher pay levels than their current wages. In a summary of the main report, the authors predicted that reskilling programs could result in higher wages for 74 percent of all currently at-risk female workers, thereby narrowing the gender wage gap.

Although job disruption from the use of robots will disproportionately impact women, the fact that it will result from “business necessity” means that employees may have difficulty mounting successful legal challenges to this practice. Instead, thoughtful employers may want to focus their energies on learning more about the scope of this looming problem and, wherever possible, create or participate in programs that will reskill impacted employees, and thereby provide them with more opportunities in expanding and higher-paid occupations.  Nor is this an unrealistic proposition as, overall, in the decade ending in 2026, the U.S. job market is projected to create 11.5 million new jobs.

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