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The Future of Work: What Isn’t Counted Counts

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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(Photo: oksana.perkins/Shutterstock)

(Photo: oksana.perkins/Shutterstock)

Whenever something is counted, we should always ask what isn’t being counted. When employers, in the name of efficiency and productivity, measure certain kinds of work but not others, the worker—and the public at large—often shoulders the burden.

Karen Levy is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University School of Law and the Data and Society Research Institute.


Consider long-haul truckers. Most are paid according to the number of miles they drive, which are increasingly tracked by their employers via GPS-enabled “fleet management systems.” What these systems don’t track (and what drivers aren’t paid for) is the time they spend on other essentials—like safety inspections, paperwork, and waiting for hours while their freight is loaded or unloaded at crowded terminals. But because their work is measured by miles driven instead of by some other metric (say, by number of hours worked), truckers have incentives to cut corners—hurrying their safety checks, speeding, ignoring the legally mandated rest breaks meant to keep the highways safe. They’re also forced to absorb the risks of bad weather, traffic, and other unpredictable conditions that might delay their travels.

It’s not just truckers. Last December, the Supreme Court ruled that retailers need not pay for the time it takes warehouse employees to get through mandatory anti-theft checks at the end of a shift—which workers said could take as long as 25 minutes—based on the judgment that that time wasn’t spent doing “integral and indispensable” work. Because that time isn’t counted as work, the worker’s day is extended—without any increase in pay.

And some “just in time” scheduling algorithms—in addition to wreaking havoc on workers’ lives by setting unlivable, unpredictable schedules—require that restaurants cut their staffing immediately when sales are lower than expected; according to a pending lawsuit, some McDonald’s workers are “ordered, upon reporting to work, not to clock in for an hour or two and instead wait until more customers [arrive].” In short, the worker bears the risk of slow sales.

Measurement technologies can affect workers in other ways, too. Amazon recently announced that it would pay some self-published Kindle authors only for the pages Kindle readers actually read, rather than for the number of times their books were downloaded. The new system takes advantage of Amazon’s vast technological capabilities by counting only a portion of authors’ work as worthy of compensation by the company.

Whether it’s unpaid time waiting around at the beginning or end of a shift, spending time on tasks that are unavoidable but don’t officially count, or being forced to absorb the costs of uncertainties like weather delays and sub-par sales, workers are paying the price for new technologies of measurement in the workplace. Workers at all levels, including executives and managers, are subject to more tracking than they used to be. But the most striking examples of this burden-shifting include warehouse laborers, retail clerks, and other workers with the least power, who must already contend with the increasingly precarious and contingent nature of low-wage work.

As data analytics and monitoring technologies come to be used in more and more workplaces, we must be attuned to how they affect these most vulnerable workers. Counting some kinds of work to the exclusion of others can mean that the real burdens of work are less visible, and that the workers who bear them may be less fairly paid for all that they do.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.