The internet exploded in a rare moment of horrified unity earlier this month, after Wired UK published an article about a new toilet supposedly being promoted to workplaces. Wired said the creator of the StandardToilet told them that it is slanted at a 13-degree downward angle designed to put pressure on the legs and make remaining on the loo painfully uncomfortable after about five minutes. The goal: Eliminate employee lollygagging in the restroom.
Joking about this is all too easy — toilet humor, as anyone who’s ever enjoyed regular contact with preschoolers can attest, is all but universal and primal. It’s also easy to wonder whether the StandardToilet was ever more than a stunt designed to go viral. Yes, there is a patent application, but as Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic noted, the premise does seem reminiscent of the Comedy Central small-business comedy “Nathan for You,” while I would point to the dystopian film “Sorry to Bother You.” In the days after Wired UK’s article was published, the toilet-maker’s website appeared to be no longer online.
But there may be a reason the story caught fire on social media and with news outlets. In a world where employers can monitor worker computer keystrokes in an effort to improve productivity, and financially penalize their employees if they don’t take part in health-care wellness programs that can invade their privacy, the idea of the StandardToilet resonated widely. It tapped into not-very-funny concerns about authority and privilege, and also served as a reminder that the struggle for employee potty rights in the workplace is far from over.
Workplaces in the United States were not required to have toilets until the early 1970s, but the businesses didn’t actually need to grant their employees access to them. This changed after the 1998 publication of the book “Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time,” which publicized the issue and caused the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fix the loophole.
Yet toilet access remains a serious and significant issue in many blue-collar workplaces. In 2016, Oxfam America found poultry plant workers reported not receiving adequate bathroom breaks, leading to people urinating while working on production lines. Others reported wearing adult diapers to work and limiting how much liquid they drank on workdays. The Government Accountability Office discovered a year later that the bathroom requests of assembly-line employees at meat and poultry plants were often “delayed or denied” and some reported fearing punishment if they took too many such breaks. Amazon has had its own share of reported warehouse bathroom-break discouragement, which the company has denied. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
There are similar issues in fast food settings, too. This fall, a former McDonald’s employee filed a lawsuit against the company after she was denied a break, which led to her soiling her clothing.
Other attempts at control are simply insulting — Uber, already facing disputes over whether its drivers are employees or freelancers — recently got snagged for forcing corporate employees and Uber drivers to use separate bathrooms at a Rhode Island office. “Siri, show me what classism looks like,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Workers in white-collar settings generally don’t need to worry about access, but privacy can be a concern — at least at Pixar, where Steve Jobs, in designing the company’s new headquarters in the late 1990s, obsessed about the placement of restrooms because he wanted to maximize opportunities for connections between employees who otherwise wouldn’t come into contact with one another.
Yet there are companies that apparently are furious when bathroom time is not simply used for personal elimination or power networking — but instead to surf social media, play games, text family and friends, or simply snatch a few moments of privacy, costing the companies money from lost productivity. Over the years, they’ve attempted to deter workers in various ways. Former New York City Mayor and billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg, for one, has more than once suggested that a key to getting ahead at work is spending “the least time away from the desk to go to the bathroom.”
Another company, WaterSaver Faucet, began tracking employees a few years back, punishing those who spent too much time in the office loo, while offering those who didn’t use the company-provided commode at all a gift card for up to $20 after a month.
High-ranking executives face little of this. They often enjoy private bathrooms where, presumably, they are not docked for excessive usage and are not expected to brainstorm with random employees. If anything, they give themselves perks that seemed designed to encourage excess usage. WeWork’s founder and former head Adam Neumann, for one, spent investor money installing a “spa and ice bath” in his office suite for his personal use, The Wall Street Journal reported. Bathroom inequality, as it turns out, is a thing. And it shows why the possibility of the StandardToilet hit such a nerve.