Future Tense

New Laws in California and NYC Aim to Keep Delivery and Warehouse Workers From Having to Pee in Bottles

An Amazon delivery driver carries boxes into a van outside of a distribution facility on February 2, 2021 in Hawthorne, California.
An Amazon delivery driver carries boxes into a van outside of a distribution facility on February 2, 2021 in Hawthorne, California. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Delivery service and warehouse workers in California and New York City are finally getting some basic rights—including having bathroom breaks.

The New York City Council passed several bills on Sept. 23 to protect people who deliver food for services like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash. One of the bills says that restaurants should “make their toilet facilities available for delivery workers’ use, as long as the delivery worker seeks to access the facilities while picking up a food or beverage order for delivery.” Under the new rule, delivery app companies should include this requirement in their contracts with restaurants. The legislation still needs to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, but, according to the New York Times, he supports the move. The package also prohibits apps from charging couriers fees to receive their wages; allows workers to set a maximum distance per trip they travel and to reject delivery jobs that would require them to travel over bridges or through tunnels; and requires tech giants to provide employees with free insulated food bags. It is the most extensive set of bills any American city ever passed to regulate the delivery industry.

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This could be a major improvement in quality of life for delivery drivers (and cyclists). According to the research conducted under a partnership between the Workers’ Justice Project and Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, 83 percent of food delivery drivers reported they had been denied use of a bathroom at restaurants where they picked up orders in New York City. Couriers face denials all over the country. In 2020, an Uber driver posted a picture of a sign at California restaurant bathroom that said: “Do not use if you are a driver.” Vice, which shared the photo, reported that restaurants are usually not that direct and use more universal signs against couriers, like “For customers only.”

Sometimes instructions to delivery workers not to pee at restaurants come from the delivery companies themselves. In April, the New Republic shared a message one Relay driver received that, in addition to the address for pickup, said: “Don’t ask to use restroom!!” A Grubhub courier, according to the magazine, got a similar instruction from the company. (Representatives from both Relay and Grubhub told Slate that those were not typical instructions. The Grubhub representative said that “it seems more like something a specific restaurant could have requested,” adding that the company supports the recent NYC bill. The Relay spokesperson said that the company opposes restaurants that don’t allow workers to use the bathrooms, but that it can’t force them to do it since restaurants are its customers. “In extremely rare circumstances, if a restaurant has asked couriers not to use their restrooms, they have been able to add instructions on our platform requesting couriers not use their bathrooms,” said Relay representative.) Facing a refusal, workers may end up looking for the nearest chain restaurant that allows them, a gas station, or simply peeing in a bottle—much easier for some people than others.

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Unfortunately, this practice has spread worldwide. In 2020, in Moscow, a customer of the Russian grocery delivery service Yandex.Lavka found among the food she ordered a bucket with urine. The company apologized and said it had no idea how it happened, but the client suggested that the courier had trouble finding the bathroom.

The bathroom problem can be even more acute for drivers whose jobs don’t take them to restaurants with facilities. In March, Rep. Mark Pocan mentioned in a tweet that Amazon drivers have been known to urinate in bottles. Amazon first denied it but a few days later acknowledged the problem. “We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed,” the company admitted in a statement. It also promised to look for solutions. As the Guardian reported in March, Amazon drivers’ strict delivery rate requirements mean that they often can’t afford to take bathroom breaks. One former Amazon driver from Texas told the newspaper that every time his van stopped for longer than three minutes, he received a call from the dispatcher. So, as he explained, it was easier for him to relieve himself in the bottle than constantly experiencing a fear of being fired.

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The strict productivity requirements also make it hard for warehouse workers to take bathroom breaks. Though the company insists that “a typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time,” media have revealed that the staff avoids taking bathroom breaks in fear of reprimands for not being productive. In June, a former Amazon employee filed a lawsuit against the tech giant, claiming the company fired her from the warehouse for taking too many bathroom breaks. Amazon didn’t respond publicly to the allegations, but according to Insider, it said that it believed the plaintiff might seek $75,000 compensation.

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California has become the first state to regulate productivity rates at warehouse companies, like Amazon. On Sept. 22, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that requires companies to disclose performance quotas to their employees and government agencies and prohibits reprimands for taking bathroom breaks. It takes effect Jan. 1. As the Wall Street Journal suggests, once the quotas are revealed to the state, authorities will have a chance to judge whether the Amazon requirements are excessive and have to be reduced. However, it is not clear if the law will apply to drivers, too. Moreover, unlike DoorDash and Grubhub, which immediately supported the New York City bill protecting delivery staff, Amazon hasn’t reacted to California’s new law yet. The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Retailers Association, both of which include Amazon as a member, opposed the measure, saying that changing quotas would raise distribution costs and, as a result, affect consumers. But consumers might understand higher prices or wait a bit longer for a package if they learn that same-dame delivery service forces employees to pee in a bottle. At least, I hope.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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