Bathroom Blues: What the law does and doesn’t say

Q. I recently began a job as a booking agent for a small special events company. I have a first-rate work station, but the bathroom is not accessible at all — I can’t even get in the door. Even if I could, it’s an older bathroom with a couple of tiny narrow stalls, no grab bars, older sink and very little space. I’ve spoken with my new boss about this, and she offered me paid 20-minute bathroom breaks anytime I need them so I can wheel down the street to a fast-food restaurant to pee. She genuinely believes this is a reasonable accommodation, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I know it’s a small company — only five employees — but should I push harder for an accessible bathroom on the premises? Or should I just take my bathroom breaks with a side of fries and let it go?
— Ivy
With today’s job market, I can understand your concern about confronting your new employer. A good first step is to have a serious conversation with your boss, in a friendly manner, to let her know that being the only employee who must leave the office building to use a public restroom is not a “reasonable” accommodation in your view. While you’re at it, also tell her that an inexpensive solution is available.
Since there are only five employees, removing restroom stalls and reducing the number of water closets to one while installing grab bars and an accessible lavatory should be possible in the small space available. Widening the doorway and installing a lock will provide wheelchair access and necessary privacy for whoever uses the restroom.
Finding someone to do the work should not be difficult. Standards for accessible restrooms of different configurations can be found in the ADA Architectural Guidelines on the Department of Justice website —
www.justice.gov. They are also available through the Job Accommodation Network — or can be ordered through any of the regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers that are funded to provide businesses with ADA information (800/949-4232). Your regional DBTAC may also be able to put your employer in touch with a qualified contractor who has done similar work, or even introduce her to another business owner who has already completed similar modifications.
Knowing that small businesses don’t have access to many resources for accessibility remodeling, Congress revised the tax codes at about the time the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. A Disabled Access Credit of up to $5,000 per year is available to help small businesses compensate for remodeling costs. If that is not enough incentive, Congress also created an Architectural and Transportation Barrier Removal Deduction, which allows businesses to deduct up to $15,000 per year of expenses related to removing architectural barriers. Check out the details at www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/tifpba.htm.
If your boss is reluctant to make changes despite having ready access to so many resources, you may have certain laws on your side. Unfortunately, in your case, Title I of the ADA (the section dealing with employment) is not one of them. It exempts employers with fewer than 15 employees from having to provide disability-related “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace. The good news is that many states have non-discrimination laws that are stricter. California’s Fair Employment Housing Act covers businesses with five or more employees. Oregon’s non-discrimination employment statutes cover businesses with six or more employees. So it’s important to know your state’s law. Contact your state employment agency or search your state’s employment discrimination laws online.
If friendly persuasion isn’t getting the job done, put your request for an accessible office restroom in writing. Should your state’s civil rights law cover your situation, that could be an important document if you need to file a complaint. Be sure to include the tax benefit information, and let her know that you are willing to help find local experts who can suggest the most cost-effective solution to the problem. Even if there are no state-specific protections, having ready access to such information may prod your boss to do the right thing, even if it takes a little time.
Hopefully the reasonable approach will solve your problem, and your future visits to that nearby restaurant will occur only when you’re hungry for burgers and fries.
Michael Collins is the former executive director of the National Council on Disability and of the California State Independent Living Council. Send questions to Tim Gilmer.

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