Canadian workers aren't entitled to bathroom breaks, lawyer says
TORONTO -- In Hamilton, Ont., the union representing bus drivers reached a last-minute deal with the city on Wednesday to narrowly avoid a strike.
A week earlier, Ottawa’s bus service came under fire when one of their drivers wrote a scathing open letter concerning his working conditions.
Last month, a bus drivers’ union in Vancouver averted a strike by coming to an agreement with the city.
In all of those cases, the issue of bathroom breaks was a primary concern for bus drivers who work long hours on tight schedules with few opportunities for bathroom breaks.
Bus drivers aren’t alone, either.
For workers in other industries, such as trucking, food production, or auto parts assembly, where an abrupt pause can delay the entire operation, bathroom breaks can be a point of contention between employers and employees.
In the case of the Ottawa bus operator, Chris Grover, he wrote in his open letter to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper that OC Transpo drivers have virtually no time between runs and sometimes don’t even get a minute for a bathroom break.
“I have personally worked a ten-hour shift where the longest break on paper was 5 minutes, and I was 29 minutes late after my second trip,” he wrote.
And while Grover is a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279, which is advocating for his and his colleagues’ rights, other non-unionized workers in Canada have little recourse if they’re penalized for taking too long or too many bathroom breaks in the workplace.
That’s because there are no statutes in any jurisdiction in Canada that deal directly with bathroom breaks or unscheduled personal breaks.
Under the Canada Labour Code, all employees are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute break after a period of five consecutive hours of work. However, that is usually intended for meals and not bathroom breaks, specifically. These breaks can also be cancelled by employers as long as the worker is paid to work through that time.
Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based labour and human rights lawyer, said bathroom breaks aren’t specifically addressed in provincial labour laws because they are left up to the “reasonableness and common sense” of employers.
“It’s left to the common sense and reasonableness of the employer and in most cases you would hope that common sense and basic dignity would win out,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Friday morning.
Most of the time, regular visits to the bathroom are not a “big deal” for employers, Champ said.
However, there are times when workers require special accommodations, for instance, when a medical condition or disability requires them to visit the bathroom more often or for longer periods of time.
In those cases, Champ said a doctor’s note will usually take care of the problem. If not, he said the employee may be able to file a human rights complaint for financial compensation.
“There are some court cases like that in Canada where people get $2,000 - $3,000 for being denied a medically required bathroom break,” Champ said.
If the employee doesn’t have a medical requirement and they’re being refused a bathroom break, Champ said they will either have to reason with their employer directly or rely on their union to advocate on their behalf if they have one.
“In some of these workplaces, people are very vulnerable. Food processing and so forth, they’re usually lower income jobs, vulnerable workers, and it’s very hard for them to raise those issues,” he said.
Alternatively, Champ said workers can continue visiting the bathroom on their own schedule and if they’re fired for it, he said they may have cause for a constructive dismissal case, which concerns unjust dismissals.