Lily Prince had to go.
The 51-year-old woman was working on an assembly line at a St. Cloud factory, making steel liners for freezers. She said she begged the line supervisor to let her go to the restroom, but he did not give her permission. She pressed several more times and the wait grew to 30 or 40 minutes.
"I knew I couldn't hold it any longer," the Cold Spring, Minn., woman said last week. "I would have wet my pants and I would never live it down."
So Prince put a plastic bag in an empty box, walked over to a garbage can near the assembly line, and urinated into the box.
She was fired the next day by Electrolux Home Products for a "health and safety violation" and was out of work for 11 months before an arbitrator reversed her August 2012 dismissal. Hers is not the only incident where workers and employers have tangled over restroom breaks. In Minnesota two complaints specifically citing restroom breaks were lodged with the state Department of Labor and Industry in 2013.
But Prince has taken it a step further, filing suit last year over her firing. Last month U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank denied a motion by Electrolux to dismiss the case.
Frank said her allegations "are sufficient to allege that she was discharged or discriminated against because she exercised her rights."
State law says "an employer must allow each employee adequate time from work within each four consecutive hours of work to utilize the nearest convenient restroom." The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also states that employees have a right to bathroom use.
Electrolux says in legal documents that it complied with the statute by providing a half-hour lunch break and two 10-minute breaks for every four hours for restroom use, which is in its collective bargaining agreement with the union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM).
Eloise Hale, an Electrolux spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, "While we are unable to comment on pending litigation, the company's labor contract provides multiple breaks throughout the day."
Disputes prompt suits
Disputes over bathroom breaks have prompted other suits and complaints and are even the subject of a 1998 book, "Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time."
A separate federal lawsuit was filed Friday against Fairview Health Services by a former parking specialist at Fairview Southdale Hospital. Chia Tasah claims in the suit that he had to use the restroom frequently after he began taking diabetes medications in 2012, and was criticized by a supervisor who told him he could only go during break times. He was terminated in June 2013 "in retaliation for seeking reasonable accommodation of his disability," his attorneys, Phillip Kitzer and Michelle Dye Neumann, allege in the suit. Fairview Health Services spokeswoman Jennifer Amundson declined to comment.
The restroom issue also arose in a massive class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. In a 2008 ruling Dakota County Judge Robert King found that from 1998 to 2004, there were 1.5 million missed and shorted rest breaks. He mentioned the case of Nancy Braun, a Wal-Mart employee, who suffered "the humiliating experience of soiling herself while at work because she was not permitted to use the restroom."
While the judge described her case and a similar one as "an aberration," his overall findings ultimately led to a $54.25 million settlement, said Jon Parritz, an attorney with Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand, which represented the workers.
Prince alleges in her lawsuit, filed by attorney John Neal of Cold Spring, that others in the Electrolux plant have been denied restroom breaks. According to documents in the court file, her union mentions a woman who relieved herself in a bucket because she was unable to get a bathroom break. The woman was not fired but told to get a note from the doctor.
In his ruling, Frank cited Electrolux's 2001 memo to employees: "When an employee request(s) to use the restroom during work time the lead person and/or supervisor must be notified. The length of time and frequency of requests will be monitored. A reasonable length of time is considered three to seven minutes and no more than twice a day during non-break work time."
The company also said if more frequent restroom visits are needed for medical reasons, the worker must produce "appropriate documentation."
Trouble on the assembly line
Prince says because of past surgeries, her small and large intestines are smaller than normal, requiring her to use the restroom more frequently. The company said she never supplied medical documentation.
Prince said that at 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2012, she asked the assembly line lead person to relieve her so she could use the restroom, but he did not do so. At 1 p.m. she asked an employee walking by to let the lead person know she needed to go to the restroom, but he still did not let her go. She said she asked him again. "He said he didn't have time to give me a bathroom break," she recalled in an interview.
She went back to making liners, she said, and about 1:15 p.m., her lead person walked by her toward the break room. He was twirling a radio phone in one hand and a cup in the other hand, she said.
"I assumed he was totally dismissing me, and wasn't going to give me a bathroom break," she told the Star Tribune. "I got panicky and I didn't know what to do and I didn't want to pee in my pants at work." About 1:25 p.m., she relieved herself in a box.
Five days after the incident, she was fired. The company cited the fact that she had been previously given a "last chance" disciplinary letter on a different matter for some remarks she had made at work.
Unemployed and living in a trailer park, Prince said she struggled to make ends meet.
On June 26, 2013, an arbitrator ruled Prince's discharge violated the union contract and ordered her reinstated.
Prince now works the third shift and there are no restrictions about when she has to go to the restroom. "It's comfortable to be in a situation where I know I can go to the bathroom," she said.