UnderCover Waitress: Bathroom Breaks

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bathroom Breaks

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Ehrenreich includes a footnote in her discussion of waitresses covering for each other when one needs to use the restroom. Nickel and Dimed, footnote no. 5 says, in part:

Until 1998, there was no federally mandated right to bathroom breaks. According to [Void Where Prohibited],"The right to rest and void at work is not as high on the list of social or political causes supported by professional or executive employees, who enjoy personal workplace liberties that millions of factory workers can only dream about ... While we were dismayed to discover that workers lacked an acknowledged right to void at work, [workers] were amazed by outsiders' naive belief that their employers would permit them to perform this basic bodily function when necessary ... A factory worker, not allowed a break for six-hour stretches, voided into pads inside her uniform; and a kindergarten teacher in a school without aides had to take all twenty children with her to the bathroom and line them up outside the stall door while she voided." 

I must admit, I had no idea. It was 1998 when I landed clear across the country from where I grew up. One of the jobs I held while we got on our feet was a factory job at a progressive bread factory. Unlike the type of work that Ehrenreich sought to do for her book, this place paid relatively well, took care of its people and produced a good product. For the record, I made more money at the bread factory than I did teaching preschool, which I was qualified to do. Anyway, it was my first and only factory job.

Memories of the bread factory came back to me while reading the above section in Nickel and Dimed because of a rather painful and embarrassing memory. I was on the bread line pulling pans in or out of the oven. I had already had a break not long ago, and was not due for one again soon. Out of the blue, my bowels started screaming that I had to void them, now.

I kept thinking I could hold it, I could hold it... I started to panic. I couldn't leave my post. I caught the eye of a roaming worker and said something about needing a break. He looked skeptical because he knew I had just had one. I had to shed the teachings of my upbringing which prohibited me from discussing such sordid details and said, "Just to use the bathroom."

His entire demeanor changed. He gladly took over my spot; I took care of myself, returned, and everything was fine and dandy.

I thought of it because of the millions of factory workers who may have found themselves in the same position with a less positive outcome, especially before 1998. And even after, as employers are not always especially communicative with their employees about worker rights. Often, there is a poster with tiny writing hanging on a wall somewhere. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only employee who ever reads the darn thing.

In the restaurant, we communicate and cover for each other. If the hostess, who usually answers the phone, needs to visit the ladies' room she just tells a waitress who isn't too busy to listen for the phone, please. We waitstaff duck away as need be when we get a chance. When everybody is busy, we wait and hold it. But I have never felt trapped in the restaurant the way I did on the bread line.

Both of these links take you to a page on which you may purchase a real copy or a kindle version of the book.


  1. I love that you're reading Nickled and Dimed! I first read it several years ago and I was suspicious of it at first. I was worried that the author would take a condescending position toward the people with whom she was working, but she totally blew me away with her succinct and tasteful handling of the subject matter. Since then, I've read few others by her, and she is definitely one of the best writer of contemporary sociology I have ever encountered.

  2. I agree. I think this book should be required reading for high school seniors.


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