Eating disorder helpline workers replaced by chatbot after unionizing
White Plains, New York - The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has reportedly decided to replace its hotline staff with a chatbot – just four days after workers voted to unionize.
A chatbot named Tessa is poised to take over NEDA's hotline on June 1 after full-time human staff members were told they would soon be out of a job, according to Vice.
The announcement of the terminations reportedly came four days after election results were certified in the formation of Helpline Associates United.
Hotline workers first announced their intent to unionize last fall in an effort to improve understaffing issues. NEDA currently has just six paid employees, a couple of supervisors, and around 200 volunteers.
NEDA refused to voluntarily recognize the union, so the workers filed an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Staffers got final confirmation of their win on March 17, and they believe the introduction of a chatbot has everything to do with that victory.
"NEDA claims this was a long-anticipated change and that AI can better serve those with eating disorders. But do not be fooled – this isn’t really about a chatbot," union member Abbie Harper wrote in a Labor Notes post.
"This is about union busting, plain and simple."
NEDA hotline workers say technology can't take the place of people
Tessa was reportedly developed by a team at Washington University’s medical school, but experienced hotline workers fear the program will not be able to meet the needs of the people they serve.
Many of the staff and volunteers choose to work at the NEDA hotline because they have had their own experience battling eating disorders, allowing them to understand and connect with those they are trying to help on a personal level.
A chatbot would not have that same ability, which could have devastating impacts in life-threatening situations, they have warned.
"While we can think of many instances where technology could benefit us in our work on the Helpline, we’re not going to let our bosses use a chatbot to get rid of our union and our jobs," Harper wrote.
"The support that comes from empathy and understanding can only come from people."
Cover photo: 123RF/pheelingsmedia