Everyone needs to use washrooms, but public washrooms are hard to find. Just ask anyone with colitis, or who has ever cared for a child who really needs to go. Toronto, for example, has only one free and public washroom for every 9,213 residents.
So, where do we go, when we really need to go?
Whether or not we like to admit it, many have probably managed to sneak in to use a washroom that is designated with a sign as “Washrooms for Customers Only” (W4CO) when we have not been customers. Last year, in a well-publicized incident at a British Columbia Tim Hortons, a woman was denied washroom access; she defecated on the floor and threw the feces at employees.
While the ick-factor might distract us, there’s an important issue of human dignity at play here, both for all of us who need washroom access, and for the often minimum-wage workers on the frontlines in managing access to this most basic and essential resource.
Employees allow washroom access despite rules
Surprisingly, there’s very little research on “Washrooms for Customers Only” rules and their enforcement. We decided to address this and designed an exploratory study to figure out the prevalence of W4CO rules, and how they are enforced. The results were not what we expected.
In North America, it seems that W4CO signs are everywhere. After visiting 202 cafés and restaurants along a sample of five of Toronto’s busiest strips, we were surprised to discover that just over one-third of these businesses had W4CO signs.
Almost half of all chain businesses had W4CO signs, while only one in five independent businesses did.
These numbers paint only a partial picture. To follow up on this basic count, Edith observed interactions between staff and prospective washroom users in both independent and chain coffee shops. Across all 92 interactions observed, there was not one single instance of anyone being denied access to a washroom, despite the presence of W4CO signs.
Management might put rules restricting washroom access in place, but employees consistently use their discretion in defence of basic human dignity.
To get a better understanding of how discretion works, Edith interviewed 15 frontline café and restaurant staff charged with managing washroom access. Participants shared that denying access to a washroom was rare, reserved for times when they felt they had to.
Some workers said that they would deny access if someone was aggressive or erratic or showing signs of substance abuse, but they tended to feel bad about the possibility of misjudging someone. Others said they denied access to people who were rude.
All but one interviewee stressed that denying access to the washroom was rare. Some discussed purposely subverting management policy by supporting unrestricted access to washrooms.
Many participants brought up Toronto’s lack of public washrooms. There did not appear to be a city guide for bathrooms, and so Edith made a complete list and accompanying map of all public access washrooms in Toronto.
How people dealt with difficult situations, though, was based mainly on the volume of traffic that they had to deal with at their workplace and the frequency of upsetting incidents.
Workers in bustling locations where mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness are visibly present were more willing to call the police when they felt it was necessary.
In less busy shops, especially independent ones, some interviewees said they would instead handle whatever situation came up themselves. Police, they said, were just as inexperienced and unable to deal with mental health and addictions crises as they were. Possible dire consequences for the person going through the crisis if the police got involved made these interviewees more willing to take on that labour themselves.
In Toronto, the memory of the killing by police of Sammy Yatim, who was struggling with mental health issues, still looms large. Overall, for most staff W4CO rules are not regularly applied. They seem to exist as a shield to be used if workers felt like they needed to deny someone access for safety reasons.
In short, workers use W4CO rules as an imperfect solution to a difficult problem.
Much more than places to pee
Besides the obvious, what happens in these washrooms?
In interviews with café and restaurant workers, over half of the participants talked about working in businesses where they dealt with used needles in the washroom. Two participants reported that someone had overdosed in the washroom at their place of work. One discussed finding someone who needed emergency medical assistance at least once a month. Almost all workers had dealt with hazardous waste (including blood, feces and vomit) at their workplace.
Participants felt that the lack of services for Toronto’s most vulnerable populations results in a downloading of crisis-management labour onto the city’s minimum-wage café and restaurant workers.
When asked for policy solutions, workers emphasized more supervised injection sites (Toronto currently has only three); more public washrooms; and the extension of housing-first projects. Housing first is an approach that considers a stable place to live as an essential human right and as a necessary foundation to other care like addictions counselling. Toronto currently has one successful pilot.
But there are still over 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city.
Overall, this initial research points to an unforeseen consequence of not providing essential aid for people living with homelessness, mental health issues or substance abuse problems.
As long as we fail to provide comprehensive services that address these needs, low-wage workers throughout the city will continue to deal with difficult and sometimes frightening incidents in their daily work lives.