Civil servants worried about contractors, economy cutbacks or reorganization taking their jobs now have a new worry: Robots.Although it is premature to begin checking the "help wanted" ads for fear of robot-replacement, be advised there may be a mechanical/electronic substitute in your future.
At last count (mid-summer) Uncle Sam had 2,921,232 human beings working for him and paying taxes. And also an undisclosed number, but, a tiny contingent, of robots.
Our government is experimenting with electronic helpers to do routine chores now performed by people with husbands, wives and children to feed.
The advantage of robots, to management, is many-fold. They do not call in sick, take vacations, complain or join unions. They work night and day unless unplugged.
The Commerce Department has several delivering mail. But the current hassle comes from the U.S. Labor Department. It has a robot device, 24 inches wide, 58 inches long and 51 inches high. This tan, 700 pound, three-wheeled machine (cost $12,860) delivers and picks up mail. It runs on a magnetic track, beeping to tell where it is. At each office stop it chimes upon arrival and departure. It does not climb stairs or do windows.
Some Labor Department workers are not amused.They say it is especially ironic that some of the reports and memos the robot delivers concern the impact of automation on unemployment.
The labor union at the Labor Department (the American Federation of Government Employes) is upset because the robot (really a glorified filing cabinet) is doing its thing on the third floor, where once a human being handled the mail cart.
Officials of the AFL-CIO union have protested that the robot was introduced or hired without consultation. While the union's contract with the department doesn't specifically cover negotiations over robots, it does include such items as staffing and job changes.
Labor Department brass say the robot-machine has been well received generally. They point to a survey where 28 of his/her/its customers were polled. The result: 24 said the robot does nice work, two offices said they had no opinion and two said they preferred a human being. The robot mail machine makes periodic stops (of 20 to 30 seconds) outside each office.
The AFL-CIO union says it is concerned that the robot was deployed without consultation, and that Labor plans to introduce other mail pickup and delivery robots on other floors. (Interestingly, word has it that no robots will be placed on the second floor where Secretary F. Ray Marshal and other big shots work. Their inter-office stuff will continue to be handled by nonbeeping humans.)
In fact the issue is rather a serious one. If government agencies begin introducing more and more robots, there will be fewer jobs for people. People and robots from all over will be watching the Labor Department negotiations with great interest.