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Recently I started to realize that I am not completely retired.

I have this writing gig, which keeps me on my toes. And there are two books in the works, one of which I hope to cross the finish line soon.

But it’s those others “employers” which started to really bother me. I never interviewed with any of them, and yet, without even an introduction, they put me to work.

I now have part-time jobs in two supermarkets, two airlines and a hotel chain. I am always amazed at how these reputable companies have scammed me into doing their job. “No, Walmart, I never wanted to check my own groceries.”

I accepted, decades ago, that it was my job to put the races on the treadmill. As I got older, watermelons became a struggle. Luckily, that was around the time cashiers were getting handheld scanners, so all was well. Those big green monsters stayed in the cart, along with the heavy water crates, and the cashier was still in charge at the cash register.

Now, when I shop at WallyWorld, the one or two cash registers available have queues that go back to the Teen Jeans or Toasters aisle. It’s worse than before Tax Day at the post office. So if I want to do my afternoon shopping before Jeopardy!, I have to check it out myself. And I hate that.

Self-checkout is stressful work. There is only on-the-job training, and this recorded training voice is not always patient. Looks like I have to scan everything MYSELF. So pack it MYSELF. The voice grew impatient recently as I simultaneously tried to unload my cart, scan it, wrap it in plastic bags taped together, then transfer the full bags to the cart I was still unloading. MYSELF. The disaster of redeeming coupons MYSELF? Not worth the money saved.

After the reprimanding voice tells me to repeat a scan or remove my last item from the bagging area, I am annoyed. It seems I’m not working at the speed they require of us unhired employees.

And yes, while some machines accept cash, all accept your credit card. But none of them take a check. Oh, you can always write a check in the “Traditional Line” which has now crept forward from Teen Jeans to baby clothes. By the time I finish this chore, I’m beyond annoyed. And they didn’t once consider setting up a break room for non-employees – complete with vodka.

The advantage of providing all this free labor? Cheaper prices? Fuggedaboudit. And there was no mention of salaries, vacations or health benefits. No retirement plan or 401(k) is offered to us.

It’s the same with the airlines. A few years ago when we started printing our own boarding passes at home, I thought it made sense. Unless, of course, there is no more ink or paper. Or patience. But their contactless procedures have become more complicated – for the passenger.

My last stay started with scanning my personal identification block (the QR code) on my mobile phone. You know the design – it’s this black square with all the little squiggles inside that looks like an English garden maze. QR means quick recognition. It’s very fast and 100 times more informative than a barcode. It probably contained my flight number, seat number, blood type and drinking habits. And imagine this – this is my personal transaction code just for this round trip, and then I get a new one!

At the airport. I simply scanned the English maze from my phone in the kiosk, followed by my driver’s license, and it printed out my boarding pass and baggage tag. The bag tag contains a detachable claim check and small printed instructions on how to attach the tag to one’s suitcase. The contactless agent at the check-in counter didn’t even look up when she took my suitcase and hung it on the conveyor belt. I was “everything is ready.”

I had not been greeted by anyone. No smiles. No eye contact. No one assured me that the gate hadn’t changed or that the flight was on time. I did the job that was done by a pleasant and welcoming agent – with no discount on my sardine seat.

I’m leaving out of town tomorrow. Today I received an email asking me to download the hotel app so I could skip check-in – with a nice, smiling person – and go straight to my room. My QR code will open my room, fitness center, pool and business center. No humans required. I wonder if the QR code will keep housekeeping when the toilet overflows at midnight.

I guess all this non-human contact makes sense to the business person who travels a lot and demands efficiency. I understand.

But I always like to be in contact with employees who are smiling, pleasant and who love their work. We work so hard to reduce and dehumanize our in-person experiences.

And after? Fully employed robots? Maybe they can be made with permanent smiles.

Marcy O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]



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