Long before the coronavirus outbreak, finding access to a bathroom was a challenge for gig workers who have been known to carry pee bottles in their cars, and make detours to gas stations, public libraries, and even emergency rooms to relieve themselves.
The problem has gotten a lot worse in recent weeks. Workers say the majority of chains and independent restaurants, including Applebee’s, Chipotle, KFC, and Subway, have closed their restrooms to all non-employees, which includes gig workers. On a recent Reddit thread titled “Where the fuck am I supposed to pee? These restaurants aren’t letting me use the restroom anymore,” Manhattan food delivery workers on bikes advised each other to pee discreetly between cars, on construction sites, and in parks.
As neither customer nor employee, gig workers do not have the right to bathroom access during work hours; federal labor laws require that employers provide at least one bathroom for roughly every 15 workers, but that rule excludes gig workers who are considered independent contractors. Holding one’s pee for long periods of time can eventually lead to urinary tract infections and incontinence.
“It’s Subway, KFC, Chipotle—really all of them, with a few exceptions. Most of them have barricaded their doorways and have signs saying restrooms are not open to the public,” Susan, a GrubHub worker in Portland, Oregon, told Motherboard. Motherboard allowed the worker to use her first name only because she feared retaliation from the company.
“You end up keeping a tally of where there are restrooms, but really you never know where the job will take you, and sometimes you find yourself in a panic,” Susan continued. “It’s especially hard for women, but some of us will go behind bushes.”
On DoorDash and other apps, making a detour to use the restroom or wash up at a gas station can lower workers’ ratings on the platform, which factor into one’s ability to get lucrative assignments and remain on the platform.
To make matters worse, the increased demand on restaurants for delivery orders during the ongoing pandemic means that some gig workers have been waiting for hours outside of restaurants before their deliveries are ready without bathroom access. Gig workers who picked up orders at Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo this year, in particular, described the conditions as a “shitshow” and “cluster-bomb,” with crowds of gig workers waiting for hours outside of restaurants slammed with orders. GrubHub, DoorDash, and UberEats told Motherboard that it is up to restaurants to enforce social distancing policies for gig workers and mitigate heavy foot traffic in and out their restaurants.
“It definitely is painful,” Tenesia Gathimbi, a DoorDash driver in Philadelphia told Motherboard who waited for an hour at a restaurants to pick up Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo. “Sometimes I won’t use the bathroom for two, three, or four hours. They time us from the moment we pick up to drop off, and I don’t want my time rating to go down.”
“With the combination of this job and coronavirus, I’m going to need PTSD therapy when this is said and done,” a DoorDash worker in Chicago told Motherboard. “We drivers have nowhere to pee even worse than before [the pandemic]. It’s really a problem when you’re out for hours and are older like me.”
When asked about bathroom access for delivery workers, a spokesperson for Uber noted that UberEats cannot tell restaurants how to operate, and referred Motherboard to its community guidelines which does not mention bathroom access for delivery workers but says that "restaurants should provide a safe area for order pickups that make delivery people feel welcome."
GrubHub, DoorDash, and Postmates did not respond to requests for comment about bathroom access for gig workers during the pandemic. When Motherboard reached out to DoorDash in January, a spokesperson said the platform does not have any specific rules about bathroom access.
Chipotle, Subway, and KFC did not respond to a request for comment.
Brandi Au, a DoorDash and Postmates worker in Boise, Idaho with chronic asthma and diabetes, said not being able to wash her hands when restaurants began shutting down their restrooms caused her to fear for her health. At that point, DoorDash started providing hand sanitizer to workers in 400 of the 3,000 cities where it operates, which did not include Boise.
“It was frightening. DoorDash still hadn’t sent us our hand sanitizer when we lost access to bathrooms to wash our hands,” Au said. “You’re touching what the restaurant people touch, and handling everything. For the most part, I’d use a bottle of water and hand soap and wash my hands out of the window of my car. When I need to use the bathroom, it becomes a situation of just ‘hold it.’”
The CDC says washing hands with soap is more effective than hand sanitizer for preventing the spread of germs, but for gig workers who handle food and groceries, that’s not possible when businesses close their bathrooms to customers.
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“As an independent contractor, I’m not employed by DoorDash,” said Au. “But if they’re going to punish me by taking away good jobs because my stats aren’t good because I needed to make a stop, that’s unfair. They’re making a fortune but can’t take care of the people out there who are working for them.”
Not having access to bathrooms is one of many ways gig workers, as independent contractors, receive second-class treatment. Motherboard reported last year that some Uber Greenlight Hubs segregate bathrooms for gig workers and employees. At a facility in Los Angeles, Uber drivers were scolded for using Port-a-Potties designated for employees.