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The real reason for self-checkout bans under new state law

As major US stores limit or ban self-checkout entirely to cut down on losses from sky-high retail theft, pro-labor politicians are seeing a window of opportunity.

Walmart, Dollar General and Five Below are among US retailers that have either banned self-checkout entirely or at certain locations. Target is limiting its self-checkouts to 10 items or fewer, while Costco will be adding more staff to self-checkout areas.

Progressive California state lawmakers want to take it a step further: take the decision out of retailers’ hands and severely limit self-checkout with a new piece of legislation.

The proposed bill, amended as recently as Thursday, would force stores to have one employee present for every two self-checkout machines – thereby keeping people in jobs rather than letting technology take over.

On top of that, it says self-checkout machines can only be used by shoppers with 15 items or fewer, up from the 10 item limit in a previous version.

Democrat Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a California state lawmaker from LA, introduced the bill that would force grocery and drug stores to have employees monitoring self-checkout machines

Smallwood-Cuevas, a former labor organizer, says her bill is not 'hard on crime' but rather it's 'smart' on crime

Smallwood-Cuevas, a former labor organizer, says her bill is not ‘hard on crime’ but rather it’s ‘smart’ on crime

The bill also mandates that at least one employee needs to man the regular checkout aisle.

State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Los Angeles Democrat, introduced the bill in February, recently saying its purpose was to cut down on shoplifting while also keeping retail workers safe.

‘We have so many bills in this Legislature that are trying to increase penalties,’ Smallwood-Cuevas told the New York Times last week. 

‘We know that what makes our community safe is not more jail time and penalties. What makes our community safe is real enforcement, having real workers that are on the floor.’

Beyond the bill’s objective to have more employees on the floor to possibly deter theft, it provisions that aren’t focused on crime at all.

If it were passed, the bill would mandate stores installing self-checkout machines must first do a study analyzing how many employees ‘duties would be affected by the workplace technology.’ 

These studies would also need to address ‘total amount of salaries and benefits that would be eliminated as a result of the workplace technology.’

Once complete, managers would have to circulate the analysis to potentially affected employees or their collective bargaining representatives. 

Dollar General is among the retailers which have announced sweeping changes to automated registers in stores across the US

Dollar General is among the retailers which have announced sweeping changes to automated registers in stores across the US

In two stores, in Missouri and Ohio, Walmart will replace self-checkout machines entirely with 'traditional' staffed lanes, as pictured

In two stores, in Missouri and Ohio, Walmart will replace self-checkout machines entirely with ‘traditional’ staffed lanes, as pictured

Target is deploying new scanners to combat theft at its self-checkout machines, which will roll out to all stores by the end of the year. It's also now limiting self-checkout customers to 10 items or fewer

Target is deploying new scanners to combat theft at its self-checkout machines, which will roll out to all stores by the end of the year. It’s also now limiting self-checkout customers to 10 items or fewer

The bill is supported by groups representing workers, including the California Labor Federation, the Prosecutors Alliance of California and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The president of the local chapter of United Food and Commercial Workers said ’employers have increasingly implemented automated checkout to drastically cut staffing and reduce labor costs.’

The union’s press release supporting the bill doesn’t mention the word ‘crime’ at all and only mentions ‘theft’ twice. It uses the words ‘jobs,’ ‘staffing,’ and ‘displacement’ a total of ten times.

Opponents of the bill, mostly business groups, say individuals and groups that support Smallwood-Cuevas’ bill are more focused on ensuring people stay employed than actually deterring retail theft.

‘Retail theft committed in stores has been brazenly committed regardless of whether there’s employees staffing checkout lanes or the presence of self-checkout lanes,’ the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Association told a state legislative committee in a letter obtained by the Sacramento Bee

In response to criticism, Smallwood-Cuevas, a former labor organizer, has pointed out a study that shows self-checkout are 16 times more vulnerable to stealing than cashier lanes. 

‘I don’t want to be just hard on crime,’ she said about her bill. ‘I also want to be smart on it, and I think this is a way to do it.’ 

Smallwood-Cuevas’ approach on theft comes after shoplifting surged 61 percent in Los Angeles alone during 2023. 

Some of the largest retailers have taken steps this year to reverse the failed self-checkout experiment. The machines were designed to cut labor costs but caused increased theft

Some of the largest retailers have taken steps this year to reverse the failed self-checkout experiment. The machines were designed to cut labor costs but caused increased theft

With stats like that in mind, Californians are showing signs they support a switch to  tough on crime policies.

Californians for Safer Communities, a bipartisan group made up of law enforcement, elected officials and businesses like Walmart and Target, said in April that it had collected 900,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure strengthening penalties for shoplifting and drug possession offenses, the Associated Press reported.

That measure could be voted on statewide by Californians this November, and if passed, much of the shoplifting crimes that are currently classified as misdemeanors will be upgraded to felonies.

In the meantime, large retailers are taking matters into their own hands.

Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens and many other stores have resorted to chaining up items such as toiletries and medication to prevent stealing, which shoppers say is a huge inconvenience. 

The frenzy among giant retailers to protect their products from thieves has recently expanded to even putting underwear and socks under lock and key.

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