Have you been punished for using the restroom at work? You are not alone!

It’s hard to believe that, in 2014, companies are still trying to punish people who need to use the restroom more frequently.  Case in point, Chicago’s WaterSaver Faucet Company. Their union, Teamsters local 743, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming WaterSaver unfairly disciplined 19 workers in June for“excessive use” of washrooms. The company’s definition of excessive use is “60 minutes or more over the last 10 working days.”(1)  Roughly six minutes a day, a standard that anyone with a bowel, kidney or bladder disorder would fail, much many normal functioning adults who drink a normal amount of water each day.

Their motivation is understandable. They claim they lost 120 hours of production last May because employees took extra bathroom breaks outside of their normal breaks during the day. Employees apparently disappeared into the bathrooms for minutes at a time to, they suspect, text or use their cell phones. To get the situation under control, they installed a card swipe system which logs employee bathroom visits. Yes, think about it, these managers are studying their employees bathroom behavior, when they go, how long it takes and so forth. For employees who linger, they have a three step disciplinary procedure that includes questioning them about “what” they are doing in the potty.

Just imagine the embarrassing conversations that might occur as employees are put on the defensive about legitimate medical conditions.

  • blogprivacyatwork“No sir, I had prostate cancer. The radiation damaged my bladder. I don’t have  a lot of capacity but I’m fast. It’ll just take 90 seconds.”
  • “Yes ma’am. I’m sorry but I have to change the menstrual pads several times a day. I bleed heavily due to endometriosis.”
  • “Yes sir. I have prostatitis and my flow is very weak. It can take a few minutes to finish the job.”
  • “No sir, it was my Crohn’s Disease. Better to use the restroom then have an accident in the production room.”
  • “Yes sir. I have a third degree tear that damaged my pelvic floor. If I don’t get to the bathroom quickly, I might leak.”
  • “No ma’am. I was born with ulcerative colitis. I’m a good employee.. I’ll work extra time if I need to use the restroom.”
  • “Yes Sir. I’m pregnant. The baby is pressing on my bladder. I have to GO! Really!”

 Not only do questions about restroom behavior violate an employees most basic privacy, but it also paves the way for disability discrimination by allowing supervisors to ask probing questions about employee health.  Worse, the company then acts to judge the employees need to use the restroom WITHOUT, I assume, the benefit of medical training. Could a manager who has never had a bladder or bowel problem believe the desperate need some patients live with? Clearly, some do not.

A Long History of Restroom Retaliation

Restroom restriction was industry standard for years due, in great part, to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation that required employers to have restrooms but did not obligate them to let workers use those toilets. One of the first well publicized cases occurred in 1995 when assembly line supervisors at a Nabisco food plant prevented employees from using the restroom and instructed them to urinate into their clothes. The punishment for using the restroom was a 3 day suspension.(2)

It was not until 1998, that OSHA issued a memorandum that employers must make restrooms available to employees when they needed to use them. Yet, restroom access complaints continue to occur.

In 2002, employees at the Jim Beam Factory in Claremont KY protested new restrictions to their restroom access after the company limited their restroom access to four breaks per shift, only one of which could be unscheduled. The company claimed that their policy was fair and respected the needs of their employees while the union stated that employees had urinated on themselves because they were afraid to leave the line. The saving grace was that workers could be exempted if they had a doctors note.(3)

Earlier this Spring, a case was filed against Electrolux Home Products in Minnesota. A female factory worker with a medical problem asked her supervisor for restroom access several times over thirty or forty minutes. The supervisor ignored and/or denied her requests. Out of desperation, the employee lined an empty box with a plastic bag, concealed herself as best she could near her workstation, and emptied her bladder. The next day she was terminated. The employee claims that her supervisor had, in the past, told her to use a box or a bucket at her work station. The case is still pending.(4)

Of course, these are cases where employees had the benefit of union representation and/or the funds to file a formal complaint.

We’ve had many calls from patients over the years who struggled with restroom access at their workplace. One Texas woman, for example,  worked for a major national department store. She, too, was told that she could not leave the cash register to use the restroom. Her male supervisor encouraged her to wear diapers and pee while ringing up transactions.

One man with IC was involved in a prolonged disability discrimination grievance with his employer, a major telecommunications company. His workplace environment (and female supervisor) was so hostile that they changed the male restroom to a female restroom to block his restroom access. Yes, that made two female restrooms within feet of each other on the work floor. He eventually prevailed and proved discrimination after years of struggle and heartache.

So What’s The Actual Law

OSHA worker safety regulation 1910.141 requires employers to allow workers to use the bathroom “when nature calls.” No one should have to ask permission to use the toilet, nor can they be limited to using the toilet only on their breaks. However, an employee can be asked to delay using the toilet due to business necessity, but only for a few minutes. This might include calling for coverage for their work position.

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