An Iowa teacher brings her entire class to the bathroom with her when she needs to go and can’t find a substitute. A North Carolina meatpacker had to wait so long for permission to go that she soiled herself.
For most people, using the toilet at work hardly causes trouble; they just get up and go. But for teachers, factory workers, telemarketers, farmworkers and others, meeting this simple need can mean humiliating pleas for permission and even a risk of losing their job. Some avoid drinking liquids or try to hold it in all day - habits that court medical problems.
Federal law requires employers to have enough bathrooms. It doesn’t say anything about allowing workers to actually use them.
That will change this spring, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will issue its first explicit directive requiring bathroom access.
“When I first heard about this problem, I was horrified to learn that employers can get away with this,” said Marc Linder, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s College of Law and co-wrote “Void Where Prohibited,” a book on the issue published in January. “This isn’t a problem in every workplace, but it’s much more widespread than we had originally believed.”
In part because of Linder’s research, Iowa in January became only the second state to explicitly protect workers’ rights in this area. Minnesota enacted a law in 1988.
Daisy Brock was humiliated last year while cleaning chitlins - pig’s intestines - at the Smithfield Foods processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.
Brock, suffering from a stomachache, said she asked repeatedly for permission to go to the bathroom, since company rules require workers in Brock’s department to wait for a replacement before going. No replacement was found, Brock said, and she went to the bathroom in her clothes.
“I couldn’t hold it until I got to the bathroom,” said Brock, who was fired last summer after she stayed home a week with pneumonia. “If you say you had to leave the line, they said they’d fire you.”
Joann Graham, a worker at the same plant, said the problem varies by department. In her current work, she can go when she wants. But in her last job, hanging newly slaughtered pigs on hooks, “you had to talk noise to go.”
Asked about bathroom access at the plant, Smithfield spokesman Arron Trub said he didn’t know anything about the issue.
Food processing - especially poultry - factories have the worst record on bathroom access, according to OSHA officials and unions.
“Every time I work on a campaign in the poultry industry, this is the No. 1 issue,” said spokesman Greg Denier of the 1.4 million-member Food and Commercial Workers union. “It goes to human dignity.”
OSHA’s first citation against an employer for denying workers access to bathrooms came last July against a Hudson Foods poultry plant in Noel, Mo. A spokesman for Tyson Foods, which now owns Hudson, insisted that workers were being allowed proper access.
“But if they’re abusing that freedom, by for example going outside and smoking, then they’re subject to discipline,” Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson said.
The problem is also widespread in California’s Central Valley, where labor contractors often don’t provide enough toilets for farm workers. Irma Luna, a former field hand, recalled that last year she tried not to go to the bathroom at all during nine-hour shifts trimming grapevines because the one bathroom provided was so dirty. At times, she had no choice.
“It was either cover your nose and mouth and go in there, or have people looking at me sitting in the field,” she said.
Suppressing the need to go to the bathroom, however, can lead to medical problems, said Linder’s co-author, Ingrid Nygaard, a Des Moines, Iowa, urogynecologist. She and Linder studied the bathroom access of nearly 800 female public school teachers in 1996.
Half of the teachers made an effort not to drink liquids during school - and those women had double the chance of having a urinary tract infection, said Nygaard, whose study will be published soon in the International Urogynecology Journal.
One in 10 elementary teachers brought their entire class to the bathroom with them when they went, and 4 percent of all teachers voided into pads, because they couldn’t leave children alone.
“There are times when I take my class to the bathroom with me, when I have to use the restroom and it’s not a break,” said Marty, a Des Moines teacher who refused to be further identified. “It’s not the most comfortable feeling to take 20 children with you when you use the restroom.”