What Should We Do After Work? Automation and Employment Law

68 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2017 Last revised: 5 Jun 2018

Cynthia L. Estlund

New York University School of Law

Date Written: September 24, 2017

Abstract

Will advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning put vast swaths of the labor force out of work or into fierce competition for the jobs that remain? Or, as in the past, will new jobs absorb workers displaced by automation? These hotly debated questions have profound implications for the fortress of rights and benefits that the law of work has constructed on the foundation of the employment relationship. This Article charts a path for reforming the law of work in the face of both justified anxiety and uncertainty about the future impact of automation on jobs.

Automation is driven largely by the same forces that drive firms’ decisions about “fissuring,” or replacing employees with outside contractors. Fissuring has already transformed the landscape of work and contributed to weaker labor standards and growing inequality. A sensible response to automation should have in mind the adjacent problem of fissuring, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the dominant legal responses to fissuring—which aim to extend firms’ legal responsibility for the workers whose labor they rely on—do not meet the distinctive challenge of automation, and even modestly exacerbate it. Automation offers the ultimate exit from the costs and risks associated with human labor. As technology becomes an ever-more-capable and cost-effective substitute for human workers, it enables firms to circumvent prevailing legal strategies for protecting workers and shoring up the fortress of employment.

The question is how to protect workers’ rights and entitlements while reducing firms’ incentive both to replace employees with contractors and to replace human workers with machines. The answer, I argue, lies in separating the issue of what workers’ entitlements should be from the issue of where their economic burdens should fall. Some worker rights and entitlements necessarily entail employer duties and burdens. But for those that do not, we should look for ways to shift their costs beyond employer payrolls, or to extend the entitlements themselves beyond employment. The existing fortress of employment-based rights and benefits is under assault from fissuring and automation; it is failing to protect those who remain outside its walls, and erecting barriers to some who seek to enter. We need to dismantle some of its fortifications and construct a broader foundation of economic security for all, including those who cannot or do not make their living through steady employment.

Keywords: automation, technology and work, future of work

Suggested Citation

Estlund, Cynthia L., What Should We Do After Work? Automation and Employment Law (September 24, 2017). Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming; NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-28; NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 17-26. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3007972 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3007972

Cynthia L. Estlund (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
(212) 998-6184 (Phone)
(212) 995-4881 (Fax)

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