Q: My 50-person team got relocated to a new floor in our building, and the bathroom situation is curiously abysmal. There are two, one labeled “male,” the other “female.” In each room, there are two toilets with no dividers whatsoever. Rumor has it HR has ordered fabric curtains to separate them. I trust all of my co-workers, but I don’t think curtains could ever provide sufficient privacy or security for people to feel comfortable using the restroom. Lots of us are upset and plan to use bathroom facilities on other floors of our building. Are we justified in feeling this way? Is having curtains to divide bathroom stalls even legal? — New York
A: I’m not authorized to practice bathroom law on land, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sanitation regulations appear to indicate that a workplace of 50 employees is required to maintain at least three “water closets” (cute), each consisting of “a separate compartment with a door and walls or partitions between fixtures sufficiently high to assure privacy.”
It seems to me that even if HR hung truly luxurious curtains, multi-toilet restrooms without lockable stalls could count only as single-use facilities, which would place two on your floor. (Of course there’s no point in gendering single-use facilities, especially with adjectives as oddly scientific as “male” and “female.” It seems to me that whoever made those labels panicked and forgot what bathroom signs typically say.)
But! If your company provides “unobstructed free access” to other toilets — imagining, in this scenario, that it operates on multiple floors, not that employees have propped open a fire escape to facilitate backdoor bathroom access to the offices of corporate neighbors — this unholy circumstance may violate the laws of good taste while just barely complying with those of New York state. In 1976, an OSHA director wrote that a restroom facility in a separate building 90 feet from the building where employees worked was in compliance. (Why are social rules upended for men at urinals? Nice try — I can’t be tricked into pondering a gentleman’s thought process.) My advice: Familiarize yourself with OSHA’s complaint guidelines and see if any of the options appeal to you — but also seriously consider finding a new job. A love seat bathroom setup does not suggest a business with a bright financial future, or tremendous concern for its employees.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.