Self-checkout at RI grocery stores would be limited with new bill – The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — In a world divided into people who do — and most adamantly do not — do their own self-checkout at grocery stores, freshman state Rep. Megan Cotter’s effort to limit the machines is sure to spur conversation.
Democrat Cotter has enlisted the support of at least two GOP lawmakers for her newly introduced bill to limit the number of self-checkout lanes at any grocery store in Rhode Island to eight and mandate that grocers provide a 10% discount to customers who use self-checkout for 10 or more items.
“Self-checkout is a way grocery stores are avoiding paying employees by getting customers to do cashiers’ jobs for free. It seems only fair that if they are going to take on cashiers’ work, the customer should get something in return,” said Cotter when her legislation was introduced.
The impetus for her bill? Jobs, mostly. And more, including her own personal frustration trying to make a self-checkout machine work at a Walmart a few months back, when she was there with one of her children, and then had her receipts checked.
“I just worked for free,” she said Friday of the experience.
“In addition to the frustration and inconvenience self-checkouts represent to many shoppers, this is mainly a jobs issue,” she said earlier in the week, in a statement released by the General Assembly.
“Self-checkouts are specifically used to reduce the number of people that stores employ, and the number of hours that their employees work,” she said, allowing grocery stores “to rely more heavily’ on part-time employees who, without “a living wage or access to benefits,” are forced on public assistance rolls.
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She also described the proliferation of self-checkouts “as a force that isolates the elderly, who tend to struggle more with the technology and, in many cases, benefit the social interaction with cashiers.”
In a telephone interview on Friday, Cotter said she was surprised by the number of emails she got when word of her bill first went out. “A good amount of emails from people that love them and people that hate them.”
Cotter said she does not expect her bill to pass as introduced but hopes it will “start a discussion so Rhode Islanders have a chance to voice their concerns in a place where these corporations will hear them.”
Her co-sponsors include a number of progressive Democrats, including the House majority whip Katherine Kazarian; the chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, Karen Alzate; Republican Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung and House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale.
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Rhode Island is not the first state to see a push to limit the number of self-checkout machines. The Oregon AFL backed a similar effort in 2019 that appears to have fizzled. In November, Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot item to ban self-checkout of liquor.
Richard McAuliffe, the lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said: “We are not pushing it … didn’t know anything about it.”
“We understand automation is taking a lot of responsibilities from workers, and certainly we’d like to see aisles filled ith UFCW cashiers and those bagging the groceries, but we are not looking to legislate that,” he said.
A July 2022 news story by CNN on the history of self-checkout machines found their introduction in 1986 “was part of a long history of stores transferring work from paid employees to unpaid customers, a practice that dates all the way back to Piggly Wiggly — the first self-service supermarket — in the early 1900s.
“Instead of clerks behind a counter gathering products for customers, Piggly Wiggly allowed shoppers to roam the aisles, pick items off the shelves and pay at the register. In exchange for doing more work, the model promised lower prices.
“Self-checkout, however, was designed primarily to lower stores’ labor expenses. The system reduced cashier costs by as much as 66%,according to a 1988 article in the Miami Herald.”