COVID-19 and Technology at Work
Part of the Labor Center’s Covid-19 Series: Resources, Data, and Analysis for California
COVID-19 has dramatically altered what work looks like for many of us: historic numbers of people have suddenly become unemployed; many people have found themselves working from home for the first time; and others are adjusting to work environments and processes with new constraints, new kinds of tasks, and new risks. We don’t know which changes will be permanent, but we do know that technology is playing an important role in many of them.
To help us better understand how technology is affecting work in the pandemic economy, we have been compiling media accounts of different ways that employers and workers are using technology in response to COVID-19, provided below. Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive or representative inventory. We will update this list periodically with new content.
Last updated: 06-08-2020
Workplace monitoring to prevent the spread of the virus:
We’ve seen examples of technology-enabled monitoring of workers’ health and behavior in response to COVID-19, especially in industries where workers come in close contact with other people as part of their work. While these practices could protect workers’ health, they may also raise concerns about worker privacy, and some of these changes may come in conflict with existing privacy legislation, such as the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.
- Monitoring the health of customers and/or employees: As part of CA Gov. Newsom’s plan to open the economy, some businesses may receive guidance to take the temperatures of their customers and/or employees before they enter. Walmart and Amazon have already implemented temperature tests for employees, and some workplaces are installing thermal scanners to check customer and/or worker temperatures when they walk in. Some employers now require the use of wearable devices to monitor workers’ health and track workers’ contacts in case of infection. Building technology companies have started marketing new features like touchless door access points linked to contact tracing and/or health monitoring. Restaurants in China offer a possible glimpse of changes that businesses may implement upon reopening, such as temperature checks and QR codes linked to contact tracing for each worker and customer prior to entry.
- Tracking workers’ health-related behavior: Some hospitals are using sensors embedded in badges to track hand-washing by hospital medical staff to prevent infections. Other companies have developed new tracking tools or wearable devices that vibrate when a worker comes within six feet of another person. Amazon and Ford have already begun to use tools to monitor the distances between workers, such as camera-enabled tracking and wearable devices that monitor location and proximity.
- Changing existing tech-related processes to reduce the risk of virus transmission: Some companies may adjust existing workplace procedures to limit workers’ or customers’ virus exposure. For example, some companies may add new features to existing employee management software, such as scheduling and time-clock apps with a new “touchless” facial recognition feature as a way of protecting workers.
Adding or expanding the use of technology to help employers monitor employees’ work:
In addition to health-related monitoring, we have also seen some examples of employers increasing surveillance in order to track workers’ productivity or other activities while working remotely.
- Some companies are using webcams and other types of productivity and tracking software to monitor employees’ productivity more closely while working from home during shelter-in-place. Many of these technologies are not new, but can be used in new ways as employers and employees adjust to remote work. Employers’ use of electronic monitoring on workers’ personal devices and outside of the workplace was a concern before COVID-19, but widespread remote work has the potential to increase the use of monitoring, amplifying concerns about workers’ privacy.
- Amazon has increased its monitoring of employees’ emails, possibly in response to increasing internal criticism over the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses.
Re-allocating work through tech-mediated platforms:
Many restaurants and retailers have had to shift to delivery or curbside pick-up options due to shelter-in-place orders. Some have used third-party online ordering and/or delivery apps, which have faced increasing criticism for their treatment of delivery workers and for their pricing policies.
Increase in tele-work and tele-service:
Many types of jobs are currently being done remotely, including jobs that have traditionally been performed in-person, such as medical care and teaching. Some of these jobs will likely return to physical worksites after the crisis, but others may stay remote. The surge in demand for government services (especially unemployment insurance) has prompted technology companies to push for stimulus funding for information technology modernization aimed at coronavirus response, telework and cybersecurity gaps. New York State is recruiting private companies to volunteer services for a “Tech SWAT Team” to help with public health efforts and other public service delivery.
Potential for increased use of task-automating technologies and robotics in certain industries:
While full-scale automation is unlikely in most industries in the near-term, some businesses may turn to automation or other types of labor-replacing technology to meet increased demand for staffing and/or to limit human contact in certain essential industries (e.g. warehouses, delivery, healthcare). A few examples:
- Government agencies are turning to AI-powered chatbots to support high call volumes (Tech Republic)
- Some police departments and other government agencies have been exploring the use of drones and other means of electronic surveillance to continue policing and enforcing social distancing rules with reduced officers in the field.
- Robots assisting factory workers and retailers in fight against coronavirus (Tech Republic)
- Interest in autonomous vehicles and delivery drones grows during COVID-19 pandemic (Tech Republic)
- How automation is speeding delivery of COVID-19 results to hospitals (Tech Republic)
- The coronavirus is forcing tech giants to make a risky bet on AI (The Verge)
- Hospitals Deploy Technology to Reduce ICU Staff Exposure to Covid-19 (WSJ)
- Coronavirus speeds the way for robots in the workplace (Axios)
Emerging workplace advocacy on technology:
We have also seen instances of workers advocating for their rights around technology as COVID-19 has forced changes in their working conditions. Here are a few examples:
- In response to rising COVID-19 infection rates among workers at Walmart stores, members of United For Respect have launched their own COVID-19 tracker website to track infections and monitor store conditions.
- Workers have initiated strikes and other actions targeting employers such as Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s: While these actions have been focused mostly on protecting workers’ (and customers’) health and safety, they have also included demands to change app functionality around tipping, increase paid sick leave, and add hazard pay.
- The Los Angeles teachers union has challenged LAUSD’s distance-learning methods: A letter sent to the district on April 1 made several demands, including for teacher freedom to create class schedules and attend limited faculty meetings. It also demanded the district not enforce special ed instruction directives without federal guidelines behind them, or overly detailed lesson plans in the event of teacher illness.