Bourbon Maker Fights Citation for Denial of Bathroom Access

Almost half the workers, mostly women, on the Jim Beam bottling line in Clermont, Ky., have been disciplined for using the bathroom, and one worker is an unscheduled bathroom break away from being fired.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents the Jim Beam workers, employees were told to "train their bladders" to correspond to three scheduled break periods and one unscheduled bathroom time; or face discipline, including dismissal.

Plant management instituted a bathroom monitoring and restriction system in September 2001, at which time, according to a statement released by the company, "Jim Beam and the union recognized there was a problem with too many people taking too many unscheduled breaks. Discussions did not correct the problem. Jim Beam was charged with finding a solution to this problem."

The solution is the new break policy, which allows for four breaks each day, or about one every two hours: in the morning, during the lunch hour and after lunch. One other break may be taken any time during the day. The company claims employees with medical conditions are immediately granted special accommodations and are allowed to take as many breaks as they need, adding that all employees seeking accommodations have been granted them.

"The new break policy is fair, reasonable and respectful to the 150 employees who work on the bottling line in Jim Beam's Clermont distillery; we do care about their safety and comfort in the workplace," said the statement.

Employees and the union say otherwise. According to the union, out of 100 workers on the bottling line - the only part of the Jim Beam plant subject to the bathroom break policy - 42 of them have received some kind of discipline for taking an unauthorized trip to the restroom. One worker is on the last disciplinary step before firing. UFCW Local 111D has filed grievances each time a worker is disciplined for taking a bathroom break.

"The company keeps computer spreadsheets documenting each time we go to the bathroom. It's like the potty police. It seems like they spend more time monitoring our bathroom time than we actually spend going to the bathroom. They should focus more on the business and less on the toilet," said Anne Culver, a Jim Beam worker.

In addition, the union filed a complaint with the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Program, and the agency issued a citation under 1910.141(c) - toilet facilities. According to Robyn Robbins, assistant director, Occupational Safety and Health, UFCW, "Employers must provide prompt access" to bathroom facilities "with no unreasonable restrictions." Kentucky's occupational health and safety agency directed the company to give workers reasonable access to the bathroom.

The company, however, claims "a bottling line is a unique work setting that requires a more formal, organized procedure for taking breaks than most other work settings. Upon leaving the line to take a break, the employee's position on the line must be replaced in order to allow everyone to effectively perform his or her job."

Some employees say they wear protective undergarments while others claim to be sick so they can leave work without racking up violations. Jo Anne Kelley, president of UFCW Local 111D, noted, "It's a shame when you feel you have the need to go to the bathroom, but you ask yourself, 'Do I soil myself or do I protect my job?'"

The company claims that before implementing the policy, it consulted with doctors and sought guidance from OSHA and other experts. "We believe the policy balances the needs of our employees with the need to get our work done properly," it said.

There are mechanisms in place for dealing with workers who abuse break policies," notes Robbins. "But the company chose not to use them. Management can pee whenever they want. If they told management they could only pee once every two or three hours, they'd have a revolt on their hands."

Kentucky's Occupational Safety and Health Program and Jim Beam had the opportunity to state their cases this week during two days of hearings before an administrative law judge. No word yet whether Jim Beam was successful in fighting the citation."

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