Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke to the Washington Post about the rapid spread of cleaning robots. Many hospitals, airports and other businesses are investing in cleaning robots that use ultraviolet light to disinfect rooms faster and more thoroughly than most human workers. The robots also help maintain social distancing standards. Some robots are used in tandem with human workers to speed up the cleaning process, but many working-class people face heightened risks of losing their jobs due to increasing automation. Tilly noted that this type of Big Tech adoption could disproportionately affect women and people of color, who hold retail and custodial jobs in greater numbers. However, he added that it does take a fair amount of time to train robots, making some hesitant to invest in the new technology. In some cases, robots were still struggling to learn shelf inventory after being in stores for nearly a year.
A new Retail Dive article highlights Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly’s research on the impacts of technology on retail in order to better understand pandemic job losses. Tilly and co-author Françoise Carré’s research paper “Change and Uncertainty, Not Apocalypse: Technological Change and Store-Based Retail” delves into the technological and structural shifts occurring within the retail sector. They found that e-commerce, decentralized checkout and other technologies could eliminate cashier jobs and even some management jobs. Tilly also noted the racial implications of such industry changes; job losses are prevalent in the general merchandise sector, which employs far higher percentages of women and people of color, while the growing e-commerce sector is considerably whiter and more male. COVID-19 has accelerated change within the retail sector as contactless checkout and curbside pickup options emerge and online sales skyrocket, heightening the uncertainties faced by retail workers.
New technologies in the retail sector are likely to mean more monitoring and coercion of workers, and a stronger advantage for large companies like Walmart and Amazon, according to a new report co-authored by Chris Tilly, professor and chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. E-commerce has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but stores have still remained an important way of selling goods, according to Tilly and co-author Françoise Carré, research director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “During the peak of the lockdowns, 70% of people in the U.S. were still buying groceries in stores,” Tilly said. “And for those that order groceries online, a worker collects their goods from the store and makes them available for curbside pickup or delivery. This shows how technology is in many cases changing workers’ jobs rather than eliminating them.” In addition to changing the mix of tasks that workers are expected to carry out, employers are likely to deploy new technologies in ways that increase the monitoring and surveillance of retail workers. “We have been hearing about e-commerce wiping out retail stores and jobs, but our two years of research tell a very different story,” Carré said. The report is part of a broader multi-industry research project led by the UC Berkeley Labor Center and Working Partnerships USA that examines the impact of new technologies on work. The project is supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
A KQED podcast series on how American workers have lost benefits, power and protections over the last few decades spoke with Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly, an authority on labor economics. Tilly explained the phenomenon of the “fissured workplace,” where full-time employees work side by side with part-timers, temps, gig workers and contractors. Some classes of workers receive no health coverage, overtime pay, worker’s compensation or other protections, increasing company profits while breaking up worker solidarity. Tilly described a job he held in the late 1970s at a hospital that directly employed not just health-care professionals, but cafeteria staff, custodians and maintenance workers. Now, such positions would be outsourced at many companies, a trend that emerged not from new laws or regulations but from “an experimentation process,” he said. By testing existing legal boundaries, Tilly said, managers and executives discovered that “we could get away with this, there’s nothing stopping us from doing this.” Tilly’s segment begins at minute 23:35.
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly was featured in a Wave Newspapers article on providing support to minority businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the federal government launched programs to provide low-interest loans to small businesses during the pandemic, confusing documentation and inflexible standards have made obtaining loans a burden for many entrepreneurs, especially those who don’t speak English as a first language. “A major difficulty non-native speakers encounter in filing for a federal loan is in deciphering the technical financial language required to fill out the necessary paperwork,” Tilly explained. “If English is a second language for you, there’s all kinds of unfamiliar words, idiomatic usages and financial terms that might be understandable to the average English speaker but baffling to a person who is still learning English or using Google to make sense of the form.” The article noted that nonprofit organizations are stepping in to guide entrepreneurs through the complexities of accessing loans.
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke with KQED about the disparities in benefits that contract workers experience compared to full-time workers — a gap that has been put into sharp focus by the coronavirus outbreak. At big tech firms, in particular, a significant number of workers are contractors who receive vastly different benefits and pay packages. In the current pandemic, offers to allow employees to work from home may not apply to contractors, for example. Tilly said that white-collar contracting, which is also on the rise in a number of industries beyond tech, creates a “fissuring” of the workplace. “These fissures undermine the U.S. safety net, which depends crucially on employment status, since contractors are considered self-employed and generally receive no benefits at all,” he said. “An emergency situation like the current one worsens the impact of the inequities, and intensifies confusion and the complexities of mounting an effective response.”
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly was featured in a Bloomberg article discussing how economic issues in California are swaying voters in favor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In the run-up to the California Democratic primary, surveys indicated that Sanders’ promises of housing and health care affordability resonate with many Californians who are frustrated by rising rent and a lack of affordable housing across the state. According to Tilly, “There are two sides to the story of the health of the L.A. economy.” Even as incomes rise and the unemployment rate is at an all-time low, the costs of daily life for Californians are rising faster than wages. Tilly explained that low unemployment and steady job growth “reflect the wider U.S. economy, but there are people being left out and who are being caught in the gap between what a lot of jobs pay and what housing and other expenses are.”
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly co-authored a chapter in the newly published book “Creating Good Jobs: An Industry-Based Strategy” from MIT Press. The book discusses industry experts’ research and recommendations for improving job quality across seven industries that employ many Americans in low-wage jobs: retail, residential construction, restaurants, manufacturing, long-haul trucking, hospitals and long-term healthcare. After working together to write “Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies” in 2017, Tilly and Françoise Carré, research director at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, co-wrote a chapter in “Creating Good Jobs” about prospects for improving frontline retail jobs in the United States. In this chapter, Tilly strives to disprove the common misconception that “e-commerce is killing off store-based retail in a ‘retail apocalypse’ and that creating better retail jobs is a profitable win-win for retailers.” He explains that both ideas are wrong, despite their prevalence in the media. Tilly argues that “policy action is needed to change the terms of decision-making away from low-wage, labor-intensive organization of work in retail.” He writes that “the primary purpose of policy action and its intended industry-wide impact is to level the playing field for companies that provide better jobs.” For Tilly, this book demonstrates across a wide range of low-wage industries that “while improving job quality can be better for some businesses sometimes, the current policy environment keeps the win-win space small, and there is no way to convince most low-wage employers that they can ‘do well by doing good.’” — Zoe Day
“Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies,” written by Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly and Françoise Carré, received the 2019 Distinguished Scholarly Monograph Award from the American Sociological Association’s labor and labor movements section. The book, which identifies room for improvement in the U.S. retail sector, was cited for its rigorous research, concise writing and deep relevance to students, scholars and activists. By comparing working conditions in seven countries, the authors conclude that low wages, unpredictable work schedules and limited opportunities for advancement are not an inevitable characteristic of the retail sector. “Where Bad Jobs Are Better” previously won the 2018 William G. Bowen Award from Princeton University for its contribution toward understanding public policy related to industrial relations and the operation of labor markets. It was named a finalist for the 2018 George R. Terry Book Award from the Academy of Management.
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke to Bloomberg Law about new apps that allow workers to tap into their paychecks ahead of the traditional two-week cycle. At least five tech startups have entered the market, which is primarily aimed at workers who live paycheck to paycheck. By accessing their earnings earlier, people will gain more flexibility in paying bills and avoiding high-interest credit card charges, the services say. However, some observers say that speeding up pay cycles could mask a larger problem: stagnant wages. “The smoothing of pay availability over a pay period is advantageous to people who have very little savings,” said Tilly, a labor economist. “What it doesn’t address is why those people have very little savings in the first place. Low pay is low pay, and this is being intensified by increasing housing, health care and other costs in many places.”