“Holding it”: Tyson, Perdue workers denied bathroom breaks

It wasn’t too long ago that OSHA issued a citation to Allen Harim Foods, a poultry producer in Delaware, for failing to give their workers access to the bathroom.

“Employees were not granted permission to use them [toilets] and/or were not replaced at their lines, waiting up to 40 minutes to use lavatories.”

Today, Oxfam America issued a report which suggests that “holding it” is a situation faced by workers throughout the poultry industry. It’s not just a problem for workers at lesser known companies like, Allen Harim. Workers employed by Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, Sanderson Farms, Case Farms, and Simmons recounted strikingly similar experiences.

The testimony provided by these firms’ employees were analyzed by Oxfam to prepare its report. “No relief: Denial of bathroom breaks in the poultry industry is disturbing to read.

Oxfam quotes from a woman who works at a Perdue plant in Delaware:

“If you ask to go the bathroom, they ask you so many questions.”

Someone who worked at a Sanderson plant in Mississippi recounted:

“Women have to tell male supervisors why they have to go to the bathroom and only have a few minutes to go and return.”

Being asked “why do you need to go to the bathroom?” or “how long will you be in the restroom?” are questions I probably haven’t been asked since I was in the third grade. But it gets worse.

Not only do these workers have to explain why they need to use the lavatory (as if it isn’t obvious), many describe having to wait longer than they can comfortably hold it. Oxfam heard workers explain the need to wear diapers or (ineffective) sanitary pads because they don’t have free access to the bathroom. A worker at a Case Farms plant in North Carolina told Oxfam staff:

“I’m eight months pregnant, and they’re still treating me the same. …I try not to drink too much water, so I don’t have to go. When I ask permission, I have to wait 15 minutes, half an hour, sometimes more…”

The report also describes “accidents” — cases in which workers held it as long as possible but ended up urinating or defecating on themselves. There’s this recollection from Robert, who works at a Simmons plant in Arkansas:

“‘I’ve seen people pee on the line –and sometimes when they’re running to get to the bathroom, women pee on themselves.’ He once saw a man running toward the bathroom who both peed and defecated on himself. ‘I don’t know any more about it than the shame of that man who went to the bathroom like that…He told his supervisor and they sent him home.'”

Imagine if the same kind of bathroom restrictions were in place at your local grocery store or restaurant. Customers witnessing employees soiling themselves while stocking shelves or working at the check-out counter. Bye, bye customers. Should we feel any different about it because it is happening behind a factory’s walls?

The country’s largest poultry producer, Tyson Foods, told Oxfam:

“We care about our Team Members, so we find these claims troubling. However, since Oxfam America has declined to share the real names and locations of those making the allegations, it’s difficult for us to address them or gauge their validity. …Restroom breaks are not restricted to scheduled work breaks and can be taken at any time. Our production supervisors are instructed to allow Team Members to leave the production line if they need to use the restroom. Not permitting them to do so is simply not tolerated.”

There’s obviously a disconnect between the company’s official policy and what happens on the plant floor. Jean, from a Tyson plant in Virginia, told Oxfam:

“You go to the bathroom one minute late, they have you disciplined. The supervisor will have you sign a discipline paper. They have taken me [to the office] several times. If I’m late one minute.”

If Tyson is serious about not tolerating barriers to bathroom access, top officials need to get to the bottom of what’s going on in their plants. We all know there’s often a difference between what’s written in any policy and how it plays out in practice. For any company, it’s never enough to say we have a policy. You need an assessment of whether it is achieving what is intended.

Separate from Oxfam’s report is another one that also describes restrictive bathroom policies at poultry plants. The Greater Minnesota Worker Center surveyed 38 workers employed at Gold ‘n Plump‘s Cold Spring Plant and Jennie-O’s Melrose facility. In “Striving for a just and safer workplace: Central Minnesota’s poultry industry and its disposable workers,” 86 percent of workers interviewed said they get less than two bathroom breaks per week. Repeat: Less than two bathroom breaks per week. One worker reported:

“I have been asked to sign a warning letter 9 times in 2 years just for asking to use the bathroom.”

I’m hopeful that Oxfam’s report “No relief” gets the attention of top officials at Tyson Foods and other poultry and meatpacking companies. I hope the conversations include the recognition that bladders are not created equal. Whomever is barring access to bathrooms need to accept this fact. Some people may only need to use the restroom once during their entire shift. They may easily be able to do so during their lunch break. Most others, however, need multiple bathroom breaks throughout the day. That’s just a reality. Corporate officials must tell supervisors to accept that fact and plan accordingly for every shift. Supervisors need to tell their chain of command about the reasons or obstacles that compel them to restrict bathroom breaks.

If Tyson and the others can’t ensure their employees have access to the bathroom, should we have any confidence that these firms are following their own policies for controlling e.coli, salmonella, and other pathogens? I don’t.