Changes in the hospitality industry as automation progresses. Room service robots?

Seattle Times business reporter Melissa Hellmann writes of how automation is progressing in the hotel industry. She begins with the example of a room service robot being tested in a Pioneer Square hotel. From there, the story explores the implications of artificial intelligence and robotics for the industry and its workforce.

From automated check-in to droids that carry bags to rooms, new technology is transforming the hospitality industry worldwide. As a result, hotel workers around the nation are seeking a say in the introduction of devices that could threaten their jobs.

While her story does not mention Seattle’s $15 minimum wage, the hospitality industry was among those most directly affected by the city’s decision to boost the wage five years ago. It was widely predicted that wage hikes would spur the already-accelerating pace of automation. Research on the Seattle minimum wage increase documents that younger, less experienced workers were losing out while higher skilled employees realized pay increases

Hellmann reports that unions representing hospitality workers attempting to influence how technology moves into the workplace, modeling negotiations in part on the approach taken decades ago by longshore workers affected by mechanization at the ports. 

She quotes UNITE HERE Local 8 president Erik Van Rossum,

…Van Rossum predicts that it’s only a matter of time before automated devices become more commonplace.

“This whole generation of room-service robots is likely to be an incentive for hotels not to pay an hourly employee, but to employ a robot,” Van Rossum said. “A hotel can rent a robot for much less than the cost of paying an employee health care and wages.”
An unintended consequence of the minimum wage hike? Perhaps, if only in the pace of change. The trend toward automation was already well underway five years ago. And the strong jobs market today is already producing wage hikes and labor shortages that lead employers to explore innovative technology to get the work done efficiently.

For more, see this KOMO report on how Seattle’s restaurant industry has responded to the minimum wage increase.