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Sen. Casey rolls out bills to protect workers from AI surveillance and 'robot bosses'

The Pennsylvania Democrat, who is seeking re-election in 2024, believes creating guardrails for artificial intelligence will be the next frontier in the fight for workers’ rights.
Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., D-Pa., leaves the Capitol after a vote on April 18, 2023.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., leaves the Capitol after a vote April 18.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., will unveil two new bills Thursday that target artificial intelligence by protecting workers from intrusive workplace surveillance and so-called robot bosses making hiring decisions, according to legislative text first shared with NBC News.

The bills focus on what Casey believes will be the next frontier in the fight for workers’ rights as AI rises in popularity and as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., calls on Congress to regulate the fast-moving technology before it’s too late.

“I think generally everyone around here is keenly focused on providing a strategy to confront what can only be described as an awesome challenge for the country,” Casey, who serves on the committee that oversees labor issues, told NBC News.

“There are also some opportunities with AI, but the challenge of it is — I don’t think I have to exaggerate that.”

No 'robot bosses'

The first bill, the No Robot Bosses Act, would bar employers from relying solely on automated systems like algorithms and machine learning tools in making employment decisions. It would also require employers to train their employees on how to use such systems and ensure employers disclose when they are using them. 

The bill would also force employers to provide real-life, human oversight over AI’s use in the workplace before an automated system makes an employment-related decision — such as during the hiring process, when adding or removing work shifts, or when firing a worker based on their performance.

“Systems and software, not humans, are increasingly making decisions on whom to interview for a job, where and when employees should work, and who gets promoted, disciplined, or even fired from their job,” a summary of the bill from Casey’s office explains.

“Maybe you’re a delivery driver and your employer’s tracking algorithm determines you’re not performing up to its standards — and then sends you an email to let you know you’ve been fired without any warning or opportunity to speak to a human being,” the summary continues. “In 2023, these scenarios are no longer just imaginary. … Without oversight and safeguards, these ‘robot bosses’ increase the risks of discrimination, unfair disciplinary actions, and dangerous working conditions.”

Workplace surveillance

Casey’s second bill — the Exploitative Workplace Surveillance and Technologies Task Force Act — would create a government body that examines workplace surveillance and submits reports to Congress. It would be led by a Labor Department representative and include officials from the Commerce Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agencies.

The task force, according to the bill’s summary, would analyze the effect of workplace surveillance and automated decision systems on employee salaries and scheduling, determine the impact on employee organizing efforts, and evaluate how such systems affect historically marginalized populations in the workplace.

So far, Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and John Fetterman, D-Pa., have signed on as co-sponsors of both Casey bills. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has co-sponsored the robot bosses bill, while Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has signed onto the task force bill.

The AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America, National Employment Law Project and the Economic Policy Institute also have endorsed both bills, Casey's office said.

A major AI package

Casey, who is up for re-election in a battleground state in 2024, will make a push to include both of these bills in a forthcoming AI package being spearheaded by Schumer, a Casey spokesperson told NBC News.

In June, Schumer unveiled his sweeping legislative framework for regulating AI, warning that “Congress must join the AI revolution” now or risk losing its only chance to regulate the rapidly moving technology.

The majority leader has organized several all-senators briefings on AI throughout the summer and announced that he will launch a series of “AI Insight Forums” featuring top AI developers, executives and experts in the fall to form the foundation for more detailed policy proposals for Congress.

“We have no choice but to acknowledge that AI’s changes are coming and in many cases are already here,” Schumer said last month in a keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit bipartisan group focused on foreign policy and national security. “We ignore them at our own peril. Many want to ignore AI because it’s so complex. But when it comes to AI, we cannot be ostriches sticking our heads in the sand.”

Across the Capitol, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he has been focused on educating members of Congress about AI by bringing in guest speakers like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he warned that too much regulation could stifle innovation and investment in AI.

“I do not want to see government create an agency to approve whether someone can build upon AI. I’ve watched what the European Union has done that has actually, their guidelines has taken capital away and people walking away from Europe and investing in AI,” McCarthy told reporters this week.

“I want to see an ability to foster AI here in America but also at the same time protect us from any fears that we may have.”