Bathroom Breaks

Going to the bathroom is sometimes a dilemma to be navigated by the SDF8 Tier One employee. Recently, SDF8 has, in its continual drive for maximum time efficiency from workers, been intensifying its efforts to regulate and reduce bathroom break times by cracking down on time off task for bathroom breaks. Of course, bathroom breaks count against the worker’s rate as well. This issue has incited considerable flak from employees.

From the VOA board 5/12/16: “Are we expected to only use the restroom on breaks/lunch? I was told by my manager that he could only excuse 18 mins of my TOT [time off task] for RR breaks. 18 mins for a 10hr shift is RIDICULOUS. It takes that long for 1 RR break from the 4th floor!”

The company response from Blake, SDF8 Assistant General Manager on 5/13/16: “You are welcome to use the restroom whenever needed. It is a suggestion and try to use the restroom around breaks/lunches to reduce the potential for long periods of time away from the work area. 18 mins is the standard time used at this point but we take each situation into consideration.”

Blake’s response is coded language. The AGM does not state unequivocally that the employee should use the restroom whenever needed. He suggests that the employee regulate his bathroom times and restates SDF8 policy that the employee is allotted eighteen minutes of time off task for bathroom breaks per ten hour shift. He then states that “we take each situation into consideration,” meaning, the employee defends his bathroom break time off task, and the company decides if the time off task merits disciplinary escalation. The “18 mins” figure the manager mentions is misleading. As the employee indicated, the “18 mins” includes walk time to and from the bathroom break. I’ll speak more about this walk time presently.

From the VOA board 5/13/16: “In re: BR breaks/TOT–I second that it is ridiculous, especially when major, unknown barriers exist like both men’s bathrooms @ seasonal breakrooms being out of order. No exemption for that is borderline unforgivable.”

The company response from Blake on 5/13/16: “Thank you for the feedback and conversation. We will continue to work with Centaurs [facility cleaning workers] to ensure bathrooms are not closed or backed up at the wrong or extended times.”

The AGM’s response indicates that he went to the employee on the production floor and spoke with the employee face to face about the issue. SDF8 management often does this when the VOA dialogue appears to be becoming incendiary. Then, the manager always posts a response similar to “Thank you for your feedback and conversation,” implying that the issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of the employee, when, in fact, it rarely has. Consider the following:

From the VOA board 6/6/16: “DO NOT TELL ME HOW LONG I Have to use the Restroom that is OSHA Regulations”

The company response from an HR manager on 6/6/16: “I will follow up with you on 6/9, your next available working day.”

The morning after I read the above 5/13/16 VOA board response from Blake regarding eighteen minutes daily time off task for bathroom breaks, I did an informal test regarding my own bathroom breaks, recording the time it takes using my digital wristwatch. I was indeed picking on the fourth floor. At 9:37am, I stopped picking, pushed my cart to a stairwell, walked down to the first floor and then to the closest bathroom. On return, I walked back up to my cart on the fourth floor, then back to my pick location and made a pick. The total time was eight minutes, seventeen seconds. My next bathroom break was before lunch. Again I was picking on the fourth floor. The total time of the second bathroom break was seven minutes, twenty-one seconds. So, on that day, I had used fifteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds of bathroom break time off task before lunch.

There is an irony at work here. SDF8 is a massive building, with a lot of employees. Bathrooms are simply inadequate. Several central bathrooms are dispersed about the facility on the ground floor. Most employees have to walk a long time to get to one. Then, if there is a problem with the bathroom (no open stalls or closed for cleaning), the employee faces the dilemma of either waiting, or walking a long way to another bathroom area. For either of these choices, the time off task clock is ticking, and the employee’s rate is falling. This long walk to and from the bathroom would only be a minor inconvenience to the employee, no big deal, were SDF8 management not continually scrutinizing employees over time off task and rate. Then it becomes a big problem. I believe many Amazon employees have lost their jobs as an indirect result of using the bathroom and other factors beyond the employees’ control. Bathroom breaks are generally understood to be a dilemma for the employee, and bathroom break regulation is generally rationalized by SDF8 management as a normalized requirement of the Amazon production environment, like many company practices, insidious in that it is presented without human empathy.

I have never had a job in my life where bathroom breaks were an issue of the slightest consequence. So, at least from my experience, the dehumanizing bathroom break dilemma is unique to the Amazon environment. Amazon would simply prefer that the Tier One employee use the bathroom on the employee’s time, not the company’s, and it wants to say–What’s wrong with that? We’re just trying to maintain production goals.

Bathroom space, physical and temporal, is sacrosanct in an unspoken way for all but prisoners, and yet, SDF8 workers are finding themselves pushed to speak of this issue often.

I find it particularly distasteful that within the SDF8 management dynamic, young men managers are charged with the task of engaging women employees regarding bathroom break TOT. I’m not speaking about isolated instances. This is strategic policy. Again, these women are hard workers with no intention of abusing their breaks or cheating the company.

When I was on the mezzanine packing, I overheard a young man manager reprimanding a young pregnant woman about time off task for a bathroom break. I asked him about it afterwards. He was reluctant to discuss the event with me, I assume to protect the woman’s privacy. I was able to engage him by saying, “It seems like the company almost always hassles people over bathroom breaks just to keep pressure on employees rather than because of any real problem. Actual bathroom break abuse seems rare as far as I can tell.” He said that he isn’t trying to hassle anyone. He can usually tell when looking at the labor tracking spreadsheet data when someone is just using the bathroom. In the young pregnant woman’s case, she had used the bathroom right after her normal, scheduled break, causing an extended break time. He told me that he advised her that she should have gone to her workstation first and logged in, then walked back to the breakroom to use the bathroom. That way, her scheduled break would not have run long. I cannot really abide his logic. To me, the pregnant woman gets the benefit of the doubt every time.