Truckers say they have been dealing with reluctant retailers and portapotty shortages at the ports for years.
Truckers say they have been dealing with reluctant retailers and toilet shortages at the ports for years. Benjamin Rondel / GETTY

Truckers are in Olympia fighting for the right to use the bathroom.

Short- and long-haul truckers claim that retailers across the country have routinely rejected restroom requests, and that pandemic-related supply chain backups have exacerbated a years-long port-a-potty crisis at the ports. (As far back as 2013, short-haul truckers, many of whom immigrated from East Africa, were saying "they face a situation similar to 'Jim Crow with its unequal restrooms.'")

House Bill 1706, sponsored by Rep. Mike Sells (D-Everett), aims to address those issues by requiring retailers to allow truckers and delivery drivers to use the restrooms "within certain parameters." The proposal would also require port terminal operators to provide enough restrooms to accommodate the hundreds and sometimes thousands of drivers who roll through the state's 75 ports each day.

In perhaps one of the greatest testimonies I've ever seen, last week Ryan Johnson, a truck driver with Teamsters Local 38, kneeled before his sweet-ass 1979 Camaro and laid out the challenges drivers face, bringing receipt after receipt after receipt. Do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing:

The portable toilet scarcity at the ports

In his testimony before the House Transportation Committee, Johnson focused on the low number and poor placement of portable chemical toilets in the Puget Sound region's largest ports. Earlier this month he said he took a weekend to count up all the cans in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett and found that only one had more than four port-a-potties for the "thousands of drivers a day" who will sit in ports "for hours and hours a day."

He went on to argue that poor placement hampered access to those few available toilets, repeatedly citing one or two cans near entrance and exit gates but none within the ports themselves, which is where four- or six-hour waits are now "common."

Since safety concerns prevent truckers from leaving their rigs while they wait, they often find themselves stuck in a port about a half a mile away from the nearest available can. "I could go into the remedies in these cases, but I don’t think you want to hear it," Johnson told lawmakers on the committee.

The reasons for the scarcity of toilets for truckers in ports seems both complex and stupid.

Labor & Industries legislative director Tammy Fellin told the committee that truckers fall through the cracks of existing laws governing restroom standards. One requires employers to provide one toilet for every 15-20 employees, and another lays out similar requirements for "controlling employers" — that is, employers who have "general supervisory authority over the worksite," such as general contractors at a construction site.

However, most truckers work neither for port operators nor the retailers and warehouses that rely on delivered products, so those entities don't technically have to account for drivers in their bathroom plans. To borrow a comparison from Johnson's testimony: "Think of going to a concert or a Seahawks game where there’s only bathrooms for the players and the band. This is what we have."

At any point in the last decade or so, port operators — the private companies who lease ports from the governments that own them — could have provided more bathrooms, but they clearly haven't. "Port operators don’t want to pay for them, period," Johnson said over the phone.

During the hearing, Scott Hazlegrove, a contract lobbyist representing port operators, said lawmakers would need to add amendments to address "security" and bathroom location issues to earn the industry's full support.

Hazlegrove did not return a request for comment, but Johnson dismissed the industry's concerns. Ports require truckers to show ID cards at the gate, so "if you're using a bathroom in a port, you've already cleared security." And though operators can't just place port-a-potties anywhere in a busy port with tons of heavy machinery moving around, Johnson said "they know where the busiest roads are, and they can find a spot."

Reluctant retailers

Lobbyists representing retailers, hotels, and restaurants also pushed back against the bill, variously claiming that they'd never turn down a trucker in need and that existing laws already force them to let people access restrooms in some cases.

Over the phone, Rep. Sells said he was likely to grant a request from the Washington Retail Association to exempt retailers from the bill. He pointed to a state law requiring retailers to let "customers with medical conditions" use the restroom in certain circumstances. In that law, a "customer" is defined as "an individual who is lawfully on the premises of a retail establishment," which they say would include truckers. "Makes no sense to have duplication if it’s already covered," Sells added. The penalty for violating that law once is a warning letter; two violations could draw up to a $125 fine.

If state law already forces "retail establishments" to allow public restroom access to anyone lawfully on the premises, then someone needs to let these retail establishments know.

Johnson claimed that many companies — such as big box stores, hotels, and warehouses — simply refuse to let drivers use the bathroom even though those very same drivers are delivering the goods those companies need. “They don’t have to give you excuses, and you’re just stuck.”

Over the phone, he colorfully ticked off several recent examples, but the following one seemed to be the most galling.

Last fall, Johnson said he waited at a Kent warehouse for four hours while workers unloaded a long line of trucks. Since his wife is immunocompromised, he said he's careful to wear a mask everywhere. Nevertheless, the unmasked manager denied him access to the bathroom, citing "COVID" as the only reason. "Before COVID they would have told me no, too," he added.

Though everyone agrees that they can't even believe the state would need to mandate something as obvious as letting truckers use restrooms, Sells said he's uncertain about the bill's future. Policy cutoff comes next Thursday, and lawmakers have yet to schedule the bill for an executive session to pass it out of committee. "I think it has the support to get out of Transportation, but I could be wrong," he said.

Johnson argues that state inaction on this issue would perpetuate glaringly inhumane working conditions and could continue screwing up the supply chain. "If you want to know why there’s a massive shortage of truck drivers, a massive shortage of bathrooms is one reason," he said.