By Noah Rothstein

More and more companies are transitioning to an automated workplace post-pandemic, which could improve productivity at the cost of jobs.

Kroger customers in Cincinnati who shop online may find that a robot picked out their groceries in a nearby warehouse. Gamers at Dave & Buster’s in Dallas can order and pay for food on their phones without having to flag down a waitress, and at a Checkers in Atlanta, your food order may be fielded by a voice-recognition algorithm.

An increase in automation, especially in service industries, may prove to be an economic legacy of the pandemic. Factories, fast-food outlets, and hotels turned to technology last year to keep operations running amid social distancing requirements and contagion fears. Now that the outbreak is ebbing in the United States, the difficulty in hiring workers, at least at the wages that employers are used to paying, is providing new momentum for automation.

Technological investments made in response to the crisis may contribute to a post-pandemic productivity boom, allowing for higher wages and faster growth. But some economists say the latest wave of automation could eliminate jobs and erode bargaining power, particularly for the lowest-paid workers, in a lasting way.

“Once a job is automated, it’s pretty hard to turn back,” said Casey Warman, an economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who has studied automation in the pandemic.

The rapid reopening of the economy has led to a surge in demand for waiters, hotel maids, retail sales clerks, and other workers in service industries that cut their staff. At the same time, government benefits have allowed many people to be selective in the jobs they take.

Automation threatens to tip the advantage back toward employers, potentially eroding those gains. A working paper published by the International Monetary Fund this year predicted that pandemic-induced automation would increase inequality in coming years, not just in the United States but worldwide.

“Six months ago, all these workers were essential,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing grocery workers. “Everyone was calling them heroes. Now, they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of them.”

Checkers, one of many fast-food restaurants experiencing a jump in sales after the shutdown of indoor dining, is now struggling to find workers to meet the demand. 

Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee in the Atlanta area, found herself back behind the cash register three decades after she started working part-time at Taco Bell while in high school.

“We really felt like there has to be another solution,” she said.

Ms. Gonzales reached out to Valyant AI, a Colorado-based start-up that makes voice recognition systems for restaurants, to adapt and meet the customers’ needs. Now customers are greeted by an automated voice designed to understand their orders and feed the information directly to the kitchen and the cashier.

The rollout has been successful enough that Ms. Gonzales is getting ready to expand the system to her three other restaurants.

“We’ll look back and say why didn’t we do this sooner,” she said.

Ms. Gonzales isn’t looking to cut jobs. She said she would hire 30 people if she could find them. She said technology is easing pressure on workers and speeding up service when restaurants are chronically understaffed. She acknowledged she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14 to $15 an hour to attract workers. But doing so, she said, would force her to raise prices so much that she would lose sales, and automation allows her to take another course.