A Robot Will Take Your Order at This Oregon City McDonald’s. Is That a Problem?

It's becoming a political tempest for the store's owner, who is a state lawmaker.

They don't show up late for work, call in sick or ask for a raise. They take Big Mac orders swiftly and silently. And now they're at the center of an early controversy in the Portland area's marquee November race for the Oregon Legislature.

"They" are twin 6-foot-tall automatic payment kiosks at an Oregon City McDonald's owned by state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) and her husband, Mark.

The couple owns four McDonald's franchises. At the Oregon City location, the kiosks are the first thing entering customers see.

Bynum's Oregon City store became a campaign issue when Kim Sordyl—a Portland education activist—called Bynum out on Facebook.

"Janelle Bynum supported minimum wage increases and then replaced those who'd get those increases w/ automated tellers in her own restaurants," Sordyl wrote. "#fraud."

Preston Mann, a spokesman for the House Republicans, says Bynum's business practices don't match her words as an advocate for labor.

"It's kind of hard to stand up for workers when you are putting them in direct competition with machines," Mann says.

Bynum says the kiosks, which were being installed when she bought the store, are aimed at customer service, not reducing labor costs.

"The issue to me is, how do I provide access to customers when they want to visit my location?" Bynum says. "Dine-in customers can order, pay [at the kiosk or the front counter] and then sit down. We bring their food to them. I think it's a great chance for young people to learn communication skills, as they actually have the opportunity to talk and engage with customers."

The dustup encompasses a variety of hot-button issues: compensation for low-wage workers, the mechanization of entry-level jobs, and the growing shortage of teens and others seeking to work in fast food. But in this election year, it's mostly about partisan politics.

Bynum, who first won election in 2016, faces a rematch this November with Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who lost to Bynum in the 2016 race by 546 votes. Bynum spent almost $1.1 million and Chavez-DeRemer spent $871,000, making it the most expensive Oregon House race ever.

Shortly before that election, Oregon passed one of the most aggressive minimum wage hikes in the country. (Lawmakers raised the floor in Portland from $9.25 an hour to the current $11.25. It will rise to $14.75 in 2022.) Republican opponents made dire predictions about the impact on small businesses. Mann says Chavez-DeRemer is likely to make kiosks and jobs a campaign issue this year.

Bynum says she has always supported a higher minimum wage and paid family and medical leave for workers, and that her use of kiosks will instead free up employees to deliver food to tables and perform other tasks. At the same time, the low unemployment rate and the difficulty of finding workers helps incentivize employers who want to replace people with machines.

But Bynum insists she's not doing that. "If anything, we are trying to grow our business and add jobs," she says. "We currently have 15 to 20 openings." (In her Oregon City store, there is indeed a table with a hand-lettered "we are hiring" sign a dozen feet from the payment kiosks.)

McDonald's began installing kiosks nationally in 2015. The fast-food giant says they are designed to make ordering and paying faster, boosting efficiency. Wall Street analysts have found that kiosks increase sales and reduce waste. Federal statistics project big fast-food job losses due to technology in coming years.

"The kiosks in my business have changed the way we provide service," Bynum says, "but it is fundamentally about improving the experience of the customer and growing our business—not shrinking our workforce."