Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich supports raising the minimum wage — and he has every reason to.
Panera’s 1,800 nationwide locations are at the forefront of modernizing the way customers experience fast food restaurants. As soon as 2016, the bread and pasta joint will have replaced all of their cashiers with kiosks.
Shaich, who donated $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, told USA Today that the move is part of an effort to “never have a customer wait,” but there is growing evidence that as pressure to raise wages builds, employers will turn to wage-free robots to avoid dramatic payroll hikes.
Fast food establishments in European countries with high minimum wages have already begun to replace some of their workforce with automated employers.
All of McDonald’s locations in France, for example, have installed kiosks to substitute and supplement human employees. The kiosks have allowed McDonald’s to avoid some of the high payroll costs of dealing with France’s minimum wage, which currently sits at $12.22 an hour in U.S. dollars. The European country is also suffering from an unemployment rate of over 10 percent.
Although the technology has not been widely adopted, equipment exists to replace almost all of the fast food workforce.
Momentum Machine’s meat-flipping robot, which can turn out 360 juicy burgers in an hour, could “allow a restaurant to spend approximately twice as much on high quality ingredients,” based on the labor costs, the company estimates.
Some companies abroad have already fully replaced human workers with robotic substitutes.
A well-recognized sushi-chain in Japan currently has robots making food while customers order on a touch screen. In lieu of human servers, a conveyer belt delivers their food and a computer tracks customer purchases and automates their bill payment at the end.
Despite the threat of the growing number of cheap and efficient technological opportunities available to restaurant chains, fast food workers, labor unions, and members of the political left have ramped up efforts to pressure lawmakers to raise the minimum wage in recently.
Over the past year, hundreds of protests to hike wages have been staged outside of fast food restaurants across the country, organized by the labor-back groups Fightfor15 and Fast Food Forward, among others.
On Thursday, labor groups plan to expand their campaign to raise the minimum wage to an international level, with protests demanding a $15 hourly wage scheduled to take place on six continents.
Although multiple states and local governments have passed wage hikes since the start of 2014, any initiatives to raise the federal minimum wage are not likely to make it passed Congress.
Currently, there is a Democratic-sponsored bill to push the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but the legislation has already failed to make it through the Senate and stands little chance of getting approved in the Republican-controlled House.
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