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How we are making our fellow Americans magically disappear

You step out of the checkout line that has a human being manning the cash register. You walk over to the self-checkout lane. Before you know it, abracadabra, a worker has vanished.

The more we bag our own purchases and use self-checkout lanes, the more workers disappear, writes Phil Kadner.
Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

I made someone disappear. This is no magic trick. Anyone can do it.

You simply step out of the checkout line that has a human being manning the cash register and walk over to the lane that allows you to do the work of a store employee.

Before you know it, abracadabra, someone has lost their job. A worker has vanished.

I vowed years ago not to use the self-checkout lanes. I had been through downsizing, corporate takeovers, mergers and the miracle of synergy (one person suddenly does the work previously performed by four).

So I was going to take a stand. I would fight corporate America. I would band with my fellow workers.

I would not use self-checkout lines designed to eliminate people.

These are jobs that normally do not pay a living wage. Often, they do not include health insurance.

If you talk to the people manning the cash registers, as I have over the years, you would discover that many are of retirement age. Sometimes they are in their 70s or 80s.

But they could not afford to retire.

The jobs they worked in their youth provided no pensions. Family members may have had serious health problems that consumed their life savings. I have met plenty of widows trying to pay their rent and avoid becoming a burden to their children.

I have met young people working the cash registers as well. Some of them dropped out of high school. Some graduated but had problems with drugs and alcohol, cleaned themselves up and were trying to get back on their feet. There were single moms.

Some of the employees were obviously challenged in one way or another. Maybe just a little slow, mentally or physically. Disabled but able to work. Proud to be in a position to care for themselves and contribute to society.

Of course, for the most part, we don’t talk to these people. We don’t have the time. They don’t matter.

They were invisible before they began to vanish.

I waited in long lines even as store employees came by and announced, “There is no waiting in self-service.”

I watched the cashiers trying to deal with people with expired coupons, expired credit cards and customers writing checks. Some elderly customers had trouble counting their cash and argued about their change.

As those lines stalled, people would move out and over to the self-checkout lanes.

It was like watching a real-life version of John Henry doing battle with a steam drill.

But in this case, it didn’t matter how fast the humans moved, or how patient they were with customers, because the machines didn’t take sick days, or ask for health insurance or get holidays off.

As if the odds weren’t bad enough already, management decided to increase the likelihood that people would shift to self-service lanes. They decided not to staff all the full-service cash register lanes.

I waited in line and watched as stores replaced nearly half their manned checkout lanes with self-checkout machines.

The cashiers for those lanes were initially moved to the self-serve aisles to help customers having problems scanning their own items. They were being used to eliminate their own jobs.

The bag boys, by the way, had been eliminated years ago in most of these places. Customers who happily bagged their own purchases in bags they bought now seemed pleased to do the work of cashiers.

I had refused. But finally, the day came.

Only three cashiers were working. Each of their lines contained at least six people pushing overflowing shopping carts. A self-checkout lane, one of seven, was open.

I took it. Scanned and paid without a hitch.

Hey, unemployment is at a record low. Those store cashiers must be going to work somewhere. The business journals claim they are “redeployed.”

I just don’t see them anymore. They have vanished.

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