Commercial truck drivers have endured many indignities over the decades. But none may be as debasing as being denied access to restrooms at locations where drivers pick up or drop off their loads.
It is a common problem, according to drivers and driver advocates. The issue predates the COVID-19 pandemic by many years, though health and safety precautions along with liability issues are believed to have made shippers and receivers clamp down even harder the past two years. While pandemic-related restrictions are legitimate, some trucking executives said they give operators a convenient excuse to continue the status quo.
Operators will “hide behind liability” as a reason not to loosen restroom restrictions, said Michael Matousek, director of state regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).
Another reason that operators give is that drivers have a history of trashing bathrooms, a charge that driver advocates said unfairly singles out drivers for behavior that could be attributable to any restroom user.
There are no federal or state regulations that address the issue of restroom access for drivers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates the workplace, does not have jurisdiction over the amenities provided to drivers on their customers’ properties. Until very recently, no state even attempted to enact laws to provide relief for drivers. It has been up to the private sector to determine if drivers should be allowed to use restrooms.
Operators that deny restroom access will often install port-a-potties, according to several executives and drivers. However, drivers said such a solution is worse than half-baked. Port-a-potties have no plumbing, are not heated or cooled, and are not frequently emptied even though hundreds of drivers may use one stall every workday. One stall at a multi-million dollar facility was so ramshackle that its ceiling gave way during a snowstorm and the falling snow piled up on the toilet seat (see photo). Another stall didn’t have a seat at all (see photo).
The burden is particularly onerous for female drivers, who account for about 10% of the over-the-road driver population and have different needs than their male counterparts.
Kellylynn McLaughlin, who drives two weeks per month for truckload and logistics giant Schneider Inc. (NASDAQ: SNDR) and is also a driver ambassador for the advocacy group Women in Trucking, said she sometimes tries to persuade warehouse employees to sneak her into the restroom rather than her leaving the queue and jeopardizing her hours of service window by looking for a rest area. In one case, however, McLaughlin was told by a female dock employee to “go in the grass like all the guys do.”
For all the anecdotal evidence, it remains difficult to quantify the extent of the problem. Operators may dispute drivers’ claims that they are denied restroom access, according to Eric Weidl, co-founder of Dock411, which provides information on shipper facilities based on driver input. A recent survey by Dock411, a platform that provides information on shippers’ facilities based on driver input, found that 24% of drivers calling on warehouses and distribution centers said there were no restrooms available. However, Eric Weidl, Dock411 co-founder, said there wasn’t a distinction made between drivers saying there were no available restrooms and drivers being denied access to them.
Other caveats are there may be differences of opinion between the warehouse operator and the driver, and that drivers are more likely to report a negative situation than a positive one, Weidl said. However, the data clearly shows that “there are facilities which do not give drivers access to the restroom,” he said.
Help from the pols
Some legislative help may be on the way.
In early January, Rep. Mike Sells, a Democrat from the state of Washington, introduced legislation (HB 1706) requiring a “retail establishment” to allow drivers access to restrooms as long as they are doing business at the location. It is believed to be the first legislation of any kind to address the issue. Supporters say they hope to get the bill, as well as legislation (HB 1657) introduced at the same time by Rep. Dan Griffey, a Republican, to provide tax incentives for companies to build more truck parking, in front of Gov. Jay Inslee by the end of the year.
The Sells bill paints very broad strokes. It defines a common carrier as “any person who transports goods for the general public by motor vehicle for compensation,” meaning the rule would apply to drivers of dump trucks and tractor-trailers. It makes no distinction between the type of operating authority a driver holds. (Language was added to the original bill requiring operators at ports and intermodal terminals to provide a “sufficient number of restrooms” for drivers operating any vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of 33,000 pounds.)
There are exceptions embedded in the bill, some of which are acceptable to drivers.
For example, a restroom must be located in an area where access would not pose a threat to the driver. In addition, access could be denied if the operator believes it poses a health or safety threat to the facility or its employees. Drivers acknowledge that facilities such as food processing plants have certain health protocols that, by definition, should exclude drivers not in compliance from going inside.
One suggestion, which has largely fallen on deaf ears, would be to attach driver-only restrooms to the sides of buildings so facilities would be available without the need for drivers to go inside.
In a newsletter post on Jan. 21, Rep. Mike Sells, a member of the state of Washington House of Representatives, explains why he introduced HB 1706:
“The basic goal of this legislation is to bring truckers relief, literally, by requiring retail establishments and ports to allow them to use restroom facilities.
“I realize this sounds like common sense and should not require passing a law, but the fact is, this is an issue, and we must address it because the men and women who keep our economy moving and deliver the goods we all depend on deserve access to restrooms.”
In addition, the Sells bill does not require operators to build or reconfigure existing restrooms to be in compliance. It also excludes service and filling stations and restaurants of less than 800 square feet with restrooms intended only for employee use.
Perhaps the biggest hole in the legislation is that it confines the bathroom access requirement to “retail establishments” visited by the general public. The problems with restroom access are almost exclusive to warehouses and distribution centers, locations where the public rarely congregates. McLaughlin said she has never been denied restroom access when doing business at a retail store location.
Calling the language a “limitation,” Matousek said that OOIDA, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Washington Trucking Association are trying to expand the “number of places that would have to comply” with the Sells legislation. He added, however, that the bill is a “step in the right direction.” John Lynch, ATA’s senior vice president of federation relations and industry affairs, said the legislation might establish a “beachhead” for driver advocates to build upon in other states.
In the immediate future, however, any change will likely come out of the industry.
Two years ago, Schneider launched a program so drivers could provide detailed feedback on their customer relationships. According to McLaughlin, the restroom access issue has been raised enough that Schneider is looking at making it a point of dialogue with customers that have policies that don’t permit drivers to use the facilities.
McLaughlin said she hopes this evolves into a criterion for which customers are viewed as “shippers of choice” and even makes the difference between entering into or continuing a relationship with the carrier. Schneider declined to comment, citing the required “quiet period” before releasing its fourth-quarter financial results.
Perceptions may not bend that easily. WIlliam “Lewie” Pugh, a retired flatbed driver and now an OOIDA executive vice president, said he’s encountered a substantial amount of resistance to the issue in public hearings and on talk radio. Some have said the government should not be involved. Others have argued that warehouse employees would be wasting valuable time escorting drivers to inside restrooms.
Still others contend that UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) delivery drivers don’t go inside homes to use the bathroom, putting aside the basic difference that UPS drivers visit a residence for a few seconds to a minute, while drivers operating Class 7 and 8 tractors could be waiting at docks for hours.
“Besides, if it was my regular UPS driver, I’d let him or her use the bathroom,” Pugh said. “It’s just common sense and common decency.”
Yet Pugh is under no illusions as to the challenge that lies ahead. “If it’s a private business,” he noted, “there’s not much that we can do.”