It is clear that Sherry Johnson loves her job as a cashier at the Giant Eagle a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. She greets each customer warmly as she carefully places their groceries in blue plastic bags.
“I have had this job for years. The people who come in my aisle are like family — I have been around for the births, graduations and weddings in their lives,” Sherry told me. “My colleagues are like family, too. Look, I just plain love what I do.”
Sherry wasn’t given permission to speak on the record, so I’ve had to change her name. But her words capture how strongly the 34,000-strong workforce at the Giant Eagle chain feel about their work — and their fears over forces that threaten to kill it off. Sherry has held her job for years; it has given her the flexibility she needs to care for her family and the opportunity to be at the center of her community’s social swirl.
But cashier jobs across the country could eventually be wiped out. Last month, Amazon unveiled their grocery prototype store, Amazon Go, in Seattle. You walk in, swipe a bar code on your phone, grab a bright orange Amazon bag and fill it with products from the shelves. When you are done, you just walk out and the receipt is e-mailed to you before you get to your car because Amazon has tracked every interaction you’ve had with their products.
No cashiers. No line. No interaction with another human being while shopping ever again. Great, right? Not really.
There were an estimated 3.5 million cashiers in the US in 2016, the year data was most recently available, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seventy-two percent of those cashiers are female. Many of these women are heads of households or supplementing their husband’s income to make ends meet or save for their children’s education.
The Amazon store could one day pull the plug on all that. It’s “a game changer in an industry where the game has already begun to change,” a food-industry expert, who asked not to be named, told me. “Self-checkout lines have been going strong for years. This is the next level.”
America has a love hate relationship with technology: We love having everything we want when we want it with the least amount of effort, and we also hate the impact it has on jobs — but only after those jobs have been eliminated and leave a devastating impact on families and communities.
On Monday, The Post told the tragic story of Douglas Schifter, a livery-cab driver who killed himself because the new economy had driven him out of business.
A lot of people will gleefully praise the end of the checkout line without realizing they are praising someone’s job loss. Cashiers are not as deeply rooted in American nostalgia as the steelworker or the coal miner, mainly because cashiers’ salaries are not as high and their symbolism not as potent.
But we are in a race against the machines we have created, mainly because we can’t figure out how to create new jobs for the people we displace. This problem is not going to go away, nor is it going to be limited to the working class.
Automation stands to affect white-collar jobs too, like sports journalists, anesthesiologists and financial analysts to name a few, according to a recent piece in Fortune. A 2013 Oxford University study estimated that 47 percent of all American jobs could be taken over by computers by 2033.
In the movie “Jurassic Park” Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr. Ian Malcolm visits the labs to see the dinosaurs that scientists have resurrected from extinction. Horrified, he turns to the park’s creator and says: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.”
Your job may not be impacted now, but it will be. Not addressing it before it becomes a crisis is the mistake we never see until it is too late.
This story originally appeared in the New York Post.