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With rapid automation there comes a tipping point for the need of humans in the workplace. Automation will become so pervasive that companies will need to cobble together remaining job duties into hybrid job positions to be performed by the remaining human employees. Is this the future? No, it’s the “now.” What does that mean for employers with disabled employees who may need to be accommodated?
The Atlantic magazine provided a close look at the USS Gabrielle Giffords, one of the newest and leanest battleships in the U.S. Navy. Five sailors now handle the jobs previously performed by 12 sailors. The Navy calls this “minimal manning.” The distinct roles of the past have disappeared. Cooks haul ropes, act as electricians, machinists, and gas-turbine technicians. Like the Navy, private employers are trying to do more with less.
Walmart recently announced it would do away with “people greeters” in favor of a hybrid position called a “customer host.” The host has added functions which include assisting shoppers, supporting security, collecting carts, cleaning spills, and lifting merchandise up to 25 pounds.
McDonalds is undertaking a concerted effort to automate its operations. As of September 2018, one-third of its stores had touchscreen kiosks, and by 2020 the target is 100% of all U.S. locations. Earlier this year, McDonalds began to test voice-recognition technology at the drive thru in Chicago. Inside, robotic fryers cook chicken, fish, and fries. Other restaurant chains are experimenting with “robot” dishwashers and ovens, and even robots that flip burgers. This means just one or two employees might ultimately work at each location.
The upshot: as more duties are automated, there will be less need for humans. The jobs that do remain will begin to look a lot like the “minimal manning” models. One employee will perform several different job duties that used to be performed by many. The employee of now and the very-near future will be expected to be a jack of all trades. However, employers consolidating tasks into these so-called hybrid jobs need to consider the implications of this new normal.
One area of concern is the effect a reconfigured hybrid position could have on existing employees with disabilities. Under the ADA, employers may change job descriptions and functions in order to meet their business goals. However, when a disabled worker is adversely affected, an employer must engage in an interactive process to try to find a “reasonable accommodation” for the worker. The question then becomes, will there be any reasonable accommodations? Imagine the McDonald’s restaurant of the not-so-distant future, where most of the work has been automated, and there are one or two employees left to perform the last remaining duties. With so few employees, if a worker cannot perform one of the functions of the position, there may simply be no one else available to pick up that job duty. So no reasonable accommodation may be available. McDonald’s may be left with no option but to hire someone else to replace the worker with a disability.
Another issue for employers to consider is how “essential” is an essential job function. If we take Walmart’s new “customer host” as an example, the position will be performing a potpourri of duties. When an employer like Walmart or the Navy combines so many job duties that none of them are “essential,” what is then the essence or “essential” duties of the job? If Walmart’s “customer host” is cleaning up spills once a month, lifting merchandise over twenty pounds once a quarter, and supporting security twice a year – will courts decide those functions are not essential or that all of them are? This can become a problem if an applicant’s inability to perform the once non-essential function, but now essential function (since no one is available to perform the task), is the basis for the applicant not being hired.
We do not yet know how courts will analyze these new hybrid positions under the ADA. Companies do not have to forego experimenting with hybrid positions that combine essential job functions. However, employers should ensure that new job descriptions state the essential functions of a job as accurately as possible. Employers must also consider how best to accommodate employees with disabilities when, what once was a non-essential job duty, now has become essential. Due to changes in technology and a human workforce reduced to a “skeleton” crew, new ways of accommodating employees must be found since simply asking another employee to take on added responsibilities may no longer be possible.
*Special thanks to Thomas Raine, who assisted in the drafting of this post. Thomas is a third year Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Miami School of Law.