cashiers-blsAccording to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cashiers “receive and disburse money, “use electronic scanners, cash registers, or related equipment,” and “may process credit or debit card transactions and validate checks.” They work in banks and grocery stores, big boxes and retail shops, gas stations and nail salons, they take orders and bring food and drink in fast food restaurants throughout our country. There are about three and one half million people working as cashiers in the United States with little variation in the percentage of the workforce they represent nationwide.

These are jobs that are very important to our overall economy because they provide a first step in people’s working life that requires no entry-level education or related work experience hurdle to overcome. Any training required is almost always supplied on-the-job.

The BLS expects cashier employment to grow only by 2 percent in the decade beginning in 2014 because technological advances such as Amazon’s “no cashier required” grocery and increasing automation are reducing employer demand. That increase may well be optimistic because cashier jobs are under increasing attack by the Automation Age.

Allan Sloan of the Washington Post suggests that “President Trump … would probably get greater value for working-class Americans — and for American consumers — by spending some of his time leaning on companies to preserve a huge, threatened class of blue-collar jobs: cashiers. Yes, cashiers.” [The working-class job that Trump could save from automation]

There is a better way to accomplish that goal than “leaning on companies:” apply the payroll taxes of a human being displaced by a machine to the machine – whether it be a grocery scanner, self-serve gas pump, automated teller machine, automated ordering kiosk, or other robotic cashier – when it is deployed. As Bill Gates points out, this will act to slow, but not stop, the Automation Age’s advance giving society time to adapt to the disruption taking place.

“How much tax should be applied to a robot ?” is a complex question.

A human cashier does not help customers non-stop for an entire shift. Sometimes there are no customers in line. People require regular breaks from standing in one place both for physical and psychic needs. People also perform “other duties as assigned” from stocking shelves to tending bar. Importantly, a robot, such as an Automated Teller Machine (ATM), may allow a bank or a gas station to remain available to the very few customers wanting services at odd hours when a human cashier would not be economical.

Just as a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, a solution to this equivalence conundrum may begin with this single suggestion: begin with a robot cashier because it has an exact human equivalent, multiply the robot’s actual working time interacting with a customer times a “human efficiency factor” to allow for breaks and lower workload, set the robot’s hourly taxation as equal to the human’s, and only apply it when the robot is actually “working.”

For example, if the “efficiency factor” is 1.25, a robot actually pumping gas for six hours during a daytime shift would be taxed equally with a human being working eight hours, that is to say the human’s hourly wage times six hours times 1.25 times 15.3%. If the robot only pumped gas for six minutes between 10 PM and 6 AM, it would be taxed as a human being working 8 minutes.

Such a formulation would allow most of robots’ cost benefits to remain because labor cost still drops by at least 84.7%. Economically viable service hours would still rise because the robot’s time would be “free” when it was not serving a customer unlike a human employee who is paid whether customers appear or not.

Reducing that cost benefit would slow, but not stop, the rush to automate. Efficiency and innovation would still be rewarded. Customers would still benefit.

There is another important benefit: cashiers earn an average of, roughly, $21,000 annually, and pay 15.3% of that, or about $3,200, in payroll taxes (that is combined employer and employee Social Security and Medicare taxes). By continuing to collect the payroll taxes from the lost jobs, the national government would avoid losing roughly $11 Billion of the taxes that that fund our national programs for the elderly and disabled, Social Security and Medicare. This would begin to address the structural funding problem facing those programs in the future.

It is worth noting, too, that this would have only limited potential for consumers to “vote with their feet” to avoid paying it. Cashiers tend to be entry level jobs that are not highly skilled nor are they highly paid. The payroll taxes involved are not sufficient to make traveling even a modest distance an attractive alternative.

Location is the key criterion for most businesses that employ cashiers so it is possible for localities and states to protect this type of human job by taxing the robots.