COVID-19 and Technology at Work

UC Berkeley Labor Center

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.

 

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:

 

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: