Gig Workers Have Nowhere to Pee

"We’re spending more money at restaurants than a customer would spend on the same order, and many of us would just like to wash our hands when we pick up food."
January 31, 2020, 5:51pm
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Christian Perea/David Paul Morris-Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Wednesday, Christian Perea, an Uber and Lyft driver, posted photos of Vivi’s Cafe, a restaurant in Redwood City, California that refuses to allow Uber Eats and DoorDash delivery drivers to use its bathrooms. In the tweet, Perea said: “This is how many restaurants treat gig-workers for companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash as subhumans"

The owner of Vivi’s Cafe did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment but an employee at the restaurant defended the sign, saying over the phone “Our owner put up the sign and we let everyone use the bathroom, but sometimes drivers don’t flush or take too long.”

Motherboard spoke to delivery drivers who work on Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub, DoorDash, and Instacart, and found that not having access to a bathroom while picking up and delivering food for hours is a common problem in many areas of the country. Drivers told us that often restaurants will post signs or tell drivers that bathrooms are reserved for customers only, forcing them to use the bathroom outside or pee in cups in their cars. As middlemen who shuttle food between businesses and customers, gig workers who deliver food and groceries often find themselves occupying a marginalized position. Neither customer nor employee, gig workers are denied the amenities typically offered to both. Federal laws requires that employees provide a least one bathroom(i)) for roughly every 15 employees, but this access does not extend to gig workers who are independent contractors.

‘There are several restaurants in San Francisco that I’ve asked to use the bathroom and they’ve said ‘no,’” Mostafa Maklad, who works for UberEats, GrubHub, Postmates, and DoorDash in San Francisco, told Motherboard. “It’s very frustrating when you’re working and have no way to use the bathroom because there just aren’t public bathrooms in this city. Usually, I just try to find one at the next restaurant.”

One gig worker on UberEats and DoorDash who asked to remain anonymous to talk about an embarrassing topic, told Motherboard that barring gig workers from entering restaurant bathrooms is common practice in Chicago. “It’s not unusual. One in five or six restaurants I go into have a sign like that,” he said. And while some restaurants post blatant signs meant to keep out gig workers, most employ more tactful strategies, simply stating that bathrooms are reserved for customers only, he said.

“It’s inconvenient and not rare that bathrooms are reserved for customers,” he said. “We’re spending more money at restaurants than a customer would spend on the same order…and many of us would just like to wash our hands when we pick up food.”

That same worker said sometimes 12-hour shifts go by where he isn’t able to easily access a bathroom. “I always respect the signs, but I’m not ashamed to pull over and pee behind a building. And I’m not shy—if someone were to ask, I’d tell them why. I also keep a spare cup in the car just in case.”

"I’m not ashamed to pull over and pee behind a building. And I’m not shy—if someone were to ask, I’d tell them why. I also keep a spare cup in the car just in case.”

Tiffany, who picks and packs groceries for the app Instacart and preferred to use her first name only, says she’s been told by Safeway and Quality Food Centers (a subsidiary of Kroger’s) in the Seattle area that she cannot use their restrooms. “It’s decently hard to find a restroom in Seattle because they are either 1) locked and monitored so I get told ‘no’ when I ask for a code or 2) they don’t have one at all,” she wrote to Motherboard on Facebook.

Their reasoning, she says, is that she’s not a real customer. “It’s a little messed up that they’re not letting people use restrooms. I’m a customer spending time and money in your store.” After she filed a complaint with the Safeway’s location that wouldn’t let her use the restroom, Tiffany says a manager gave her access.

“The restrooms in our facilities are accessible to the public, including gig workers. This isolated incident where a patron was denied access to a locked restroom is not consistent with our store policies,” a spokesperson for Safeway said.

Quality Food Centers did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, but an employee who answered the phone at a downtown Seattle location told Motherboard that Quality Food Centers in the area have a policy of not allowing customers to use their restrooms. He wasn’t sure how this policy applies to gig workers.

Many drivers echo these sentiments in online forums. They say they’re forced to make pit stops at parks, gas stations or McDonald’s. Sometimes they ask customers if they can relieve themselves inside their homes. The topic of where and how to pee is a regular subject on the r/UberDrivers subreddit, where one driver noted that a “Peetainer” was “the best purchase I made all last year.” Other threads ask “how many drivers use a piss bottle?” 32-ounce Gatorade bottles seem to be the consensus best pee bottle among drivers.

Late last year, when the actress Gabrielle Union tweeted about an Uber driver who spent 15 minutes in the bathroom at her Los Angeles house, Uber responded saying, “That definitely should not be happening.”

Motherboard reached out to Uber, DoorDash, Grubhub, Seamless, and Instacart for comment about specific policies regarding bathroom use. Uber and DoorDash said they do not have any specific rules about bathroom access. Grubhub, Seamless, and Instacart did not respond. Motherboard reviewed their community guidelines and found nothing on the subject of bathroom access.

When asked, an Uber Eats spokesperson pointed to the community guidelines and quoted: "Restaurants should provide a safe area for order pickups that make delivery people feel welcome."

According to a DoorDash spokesperson, the company's algorithm aims to have the driver be in the restaurant for as little time as possible. The spokesperson also said that it's the establishment's decision to not let drivers use the bathroom, not DoorDash's. The spokesperson compared a DoorDash driver wanting to use a restaurant's bathroom to an Uber driver asking a passenger to use their restroom after dropping them off.

This sort of discrimination against gig workers isn't limited to just delivery apps, but also ride-hailing apps. Motherboard reported last year that some Uber Greenlight Hubs segregated bathrooms by worker classification; at one facility, Uber drivers were directed to Port-a-Potties without running water and scolded for using employee designated ones.

Take New York City’s airports, for example, where for years drivers did not have access to bathrooms. While ride-hail drivers waited in an isolated parking lot for their turn in the queue, they were forced to urinate in bottles and "turn a patch of foliage into their own oversized litter box” for fear of missing a passenger.

In New York City, there are over 120,000 ride-hail app drivers and only 32 designated “relief stands."

"When we launched our restroom campaign in late 2016, there wasn't even a port-a-potty for ride-hail drivers at JFK,” Moira Muntz, spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, a New York City-based labor group for app-based drivers, told Motherboard. “After years of research and conference calls, we finally won running water restrooms at the airports. This fall, the Port Authority put in place running water restroom trailers at all three airports and approved plans to build permanent restroom facilities."

New York City itself, however, is not doing much better. There are over 120,000 ride-hail app drivers (also known as for-hire-vehicle drivers or FHVs) and only 32 designated “relief stands” for FHVs to park for an hour and “take care of personal needs”—19 are in Manhattan, where the vast majority of all drivers operate.

"These are just places to park—in most cases there is no nearby public restroom. Also, many of these 'relief stands' are only designated for FHV use overnight or after businesses are closed. Many of them are for commercial deliveries only during the day,” Muntz said. “New York City desperately needs more public restrooms."

Are you a gig worker with a story to share about your working conditions? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Edward at edward.ongweso@vice.com or on Signal 413-225-2938, or Lauren at lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

There’s a reason that gig workers consistently have difficulty getting bathroom access whether its in restaurants, grocery stores, airports, or at city-designated rest stops—and why gig employers are in no rush to do anything about it. Gig workers are seen, with some classist disregard, as a problem to be solved. For these companies, the problem is how to minimize labor costs in pursuit of profits; for cities and states, the problem is how to classify workers and their rights/responsibilities; and for everyone else, the problem is that they do what everyone else does (use the bathroom, contribute to traffic, etc.).

But if you’re the gig worker and the problem is you want to be treated with some dignity, perhaps take a bathroom break between jobs as you struggle to make ends meet…well, tough shit!

Correction: Due to a miscommunication during the reporting process, DoorDash’s statement has been updated in this piece. Motherboard regrets the error.