Simplifying Restroom Access: Who Has The Right to Flush?

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My Story

Last year, I was shopping at the Seattle QFC on Broadway and Pine at 7PM when suddenly I felt a twinge in my stomach. The QFC sandwich I had just eaten was beginning to make its presence known. I needed to use the restroom.

I had noticed QFC had closed their bathrooms to the general public and had previously tried to use the restroom at QFC on Broadway and Republican, but I decided to plead with the manager. The manager told me that the building owners, Madison Marquette, who also own the Harvard Ave QFC building and Pacific Place mall, had closed the restrooms of the Broadway and Pine location. His instructions were that mothers with babies or emergency cases could use the restroom, but they needed permission. Other managers stated that because they had removed the chairs, the QFC was no longer considered a restaurant or deli. As a result, the QFC no longer needed to maintain a bathroom. Ultimately, I was not allowed to use the restroom.

Why Restroom Access Matters

As all Seattleites are probably aware, most Seattle businesses go to great lengths to limit public restroom access, usually to limit the number of homeless on their premises. But arbitrary public restroom access inevitably affects others, as in my example and when a Starbucks customer was denied restroom access on account of his race. Both examples show that businesses routinely place business interests above that of the general public’s welfare and that the laws governing businesses do not adequately clarify the business’s duties toward the general public. To ensure the general public’s welfare is upheld to the highest standard, all restroom access limitations at any business selling food should be made illegal so long as the bathroom goer is a paying customer. In addition, if a business’s restroom is out of order, the business should only have 24 hours to repair the bathroom. Otherwise, the business license should be suspended.

Image of Restroom

Currently, state and local governments administer bathroom laws. But as evidenced by my experience at the QFC on Broadway and Pine, businesses are easily able to subvert the current laws intended to regulate bathroom usage. By removing bathroom access, the QFC on Broadway and Pine clearly violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. But what is even more troubling than the law being subverted, is the fact that businesses are still able to make inexcusable moral decisions.

Ally Bain’s Story: Opening Employee Bathrooms For Emergencies

When Ally Bain was eleven years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, and weight loss. Flare-ups of the disease caused Ally to use the bathroom up to forty times per day, often at inconvenient times.

One of those inconvenient times arrived when Ally was fourteen years old shopping with her mother. Ally realized immediately that she needed to use a restroom fast. Unfortunately, the store they were shopping at didn’t have public restrooms. When Ally and her mother begged for permission to use the employee restroom, the manager denied Ally’s plea. Even as she cried and doubled over in pain, the manager still maintained that it was a “managerial decision.” Eventually, Ally had an accident in the store. Following the accident, Ally’s mother promised her that such a scene would never happen to Ally or anyone else suffering from a medical emergency ever again. In 2005, the Restroom Access Act, otherwise known as Ally’s Law, was passed in Illinois, stating that anyone suffering from a medical emergency must be allowed to use the employee restroom. (To read Ally’s account of her experience, click here.)

Ally’s Law

For most readers, this would probably constitute a happy ending. Ally’s Law has been passed in fifteen states including Washington. Anyone with IBD or any other qualifying disease who presents a valid notice from a certified medical professional to a business employee must be allowed to use the restroom—regardless of whether it is an employee restroom or not.

But the penalty for businesses who do not obey Ally’s Law within Washington is pitiful. In Washington, a business who does not allow an individual protected under Ally’s Law to use their restroom is sent a letter. That’s it. A strongly worded letter from the Washington legislature. Imagine being a business owner or manager and not having the basic decency to allow an individual with IBD to use your employee restroom. Now imagine that a law is passed supposedly protecting individuals suffering from IBD, but the penalty for not obeying the law is a letter. A parking infraction carries more weight. I highly doubt that when Ally’s mother told Ally that her accident would never be repeated, the consequence she had in mind for offending businesses was nothing more than a letter telling them off.

Conclusion: Simplifying Restroom Access

As demonstrated by Ally Bain’s story, the business community frequently places business interests above the general public’s welfare. But what’s more concerning is our legislative system’s apparently compromised stance toward business. I cannot fathom how denying a fourteen-year-old girl restroom access results in fewer consequences than being illegally parked. It is clear from this example that we need to remove business control over restroom access.

The best way to simplify the law’s stance toward bathrooms is to make bathrooms open to all paying customers.