Experts to lawmakers: AI threatens low wage work in New York

The Assembly held a hearing on AI in the workplace, and concerns abounded.

The New York state Capitol building

The New York state Capitol building Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

State lawmakers heard from policy experts and labor representatives at a hearing Thursday on artificial intelligence’s role in the workplace. Labor leaders spoke of the harm artificial intelligence could bring, especially to low-skilled workers employed at call centers and warehouses. Some Assembly members appeared to be learning about the problems at the same time they learned of the capabilities of artificial intelligence. Based on the testimony lawmakers received, the question is not whether it can fit in the workplace, but what to do now that it's there. 

Executive Board Member for the Public Employees Federation and Division Council Leader Christopher Ford said artificial intelligence was a good tool when used properly. “Things like the Department of Labor, unemployment, insurance decisions, social work, making decisions for parolees, things like that. Those are decisions that you can automate,” Ford said, “But there is always a human (supervising).”

He said regulations and guidelines needed to be introduced to ensure that artificial intelligence wasn’t misused or abused to the detriment of employees or customers – noting that existing biases can be passed on to the tech.

“AI is implementing human decisions based on a pattern from before, and this is where we come into, like, garbage in garbage out,” he said.

Clyde Vanel, a Democratic Assembly member from Queens, who earlier this year introduced legislation written by AI, mused about which state jobs might be replaced by artificial intelligence. 

“I used to have to go through toll booths and we used to have to pay people there. But now, that process has been automated and replaced by artificial intelligence,” said Vance.

In the private sector, artificial intelligence is already guiding the workflows of some people, like remote workers having their keystrokes and other movements monitored and call-center employees getting computer-generated feedback on phone calls, panelists said. 

Matthew Scherer, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that the easiest jobs to monitor are ones where the work is easily quantifiable.

“Probably the most famous examples of that come from Amazon and their warehouse where workers hold scanners that essentially assign every task that they're supposed to perform on an almost second-by-second basis and track how quickly they perform them,” said Scherer.

One way to curb the effects of artificial intelligence is job training, according to Josh Kellerman, director of public policy at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. 

“One of the ways we think about it is (employers are) not investing in the training of workers and the upskilling of workers as they stand, why would they do it when new technology is invented? There's a general deskilling of the low-income workforce in the country,” Kellerman said. 

He said workers should be notified when artificial intelligence is added to their workforce and have a say in whether or not it is adopted. Workers should also have access to artificial intelligence gathered about them, he added. 

Kellerman said the idea of accommodating new technology into workplaces was not new and “as old as union bargaining.” The punch clock serving as a guiding example, he said he was already negotiating artificial intelligence’s usage on behalf of some unions in New York. 

Labor Committee Chair Latoya Joyner said she appreciated the information being shared by panelists. The hearing was jointly held by the Labor Committee and the Committee on Science and Technology

“To know what technologies are being used, what protections, that's going to be another important concept that we're going to have to discuss but as a Labor Chair will be helpful as these negotiations and these developments are happening,” the Democrat said.