Add equal bathroom access to life, liberty, happiness and the other things the government wants to make sure American citizens enjoy.
Some call it “potty parity,” others label it “porcelain proportionality” — but a bipartisan group in Congress, braving potential public ridicule, says it’s time federal buildings provide equal bathroom access for women, who are currently burdened by long lines and the need for more time once they get in the door.
Led by Rep. Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the lawmakers want most federal office buildings built or leased from now on to have at least as many toilets for women as they do toilets and urinals for men.
“The fact that many federal buildings do not provide as many restroom facilities for women as they do for men is simply unfair. It’s time for that to change,” Mr. Towns said Wednesday at a hearing he called to gather information on his bill.
But measuring commode conformity is not cut and dried.
Some argued that it means equality of opportunity, as judged by the number of stalls, while others said equality of outcome is the key, which could be measured by the length of lines.
“Women on average take about twice as long to use facilities as men. The result is still going to be much longer lines for women than men,” said John F. Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington University who has helped craft some of the potty-parity laws enacted in states.
Mr. Banzhaf said some courts have ruled that providing the exact same facilities still could be seen as having a disparate impact because of the inherent different challenges the two sexes face.
He pointed to a federal appeals court decision that held a construction site that provided portable toilets was in violation because women, unlike men, always have to sit down, and so face a less-clean situation.
He said Wolf Trap, the National Park Service’s outdoor concert venue in Fairfax County, had two men’s and two women’s restrooms, and men breezed through while women waited in long lines. So one men’s room was converted to a women’s room and now “today everyone waits in line.”
The average age of federal buildings run by the General Services Administration is 46 years old, meaning most of the buildings were designed at a time when men far outnumbered women in the work force. A disparity in facilities was common.
Mr. Towns’ bill would require any new buildings built by the government to meet a 1-1 ratio, and would tell the government to give preference to buildings that meet that standard when they make leasing decisions. That provision could help ensure a nationwide standard.
Dozens of states and localities already have rules. Some require ratios as high as 2-1 women’s rooms versus men’s rooms.
Still, there’s some question as to whether a federal law is a solution in search of a problem.
Robert A. Peck, commissioner of public buildings at GSA, which manages most civilian government office space, told lawmakers he has checked and that neither he nor his senior managers see lines outside of government restrooms, nor do they get complaints.
“I was not aware of any complaints in our buildings that indicate we have an inadequate number of women’s facilities compared to men’s,” he said.
Lawmakers, though, said they’ve seen the problem firsthand in places such as the Capitol. It was only in recent years that a women’s restroom was added near the Senate floor, and female House members still have to seek out a restroom while their male counterparts have facilities just a few feet from the chamber door.
While it may sound trivial, lawmakers said, it’s a serious matter.
“Restroom gender parity is an issue that impacts a woman’s health as well as her qualify of life,” said Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, New York Democrat, who helped New York City pass a parity law. She said some people contract infections or develop abdominal pain because they “hold it,” while other people forgo eating or drinking or avoid some places altogether because of bathroom issues.
Robert Brubaker, a spokesman for the American Restroom Association, said his association is nudging the government to comply with building codes, which have been worked out and tweaked over years to match restroom-use patterns. He said the ARA doesn’t want to see a specific ratio mandated, because that doesn’t work in facilities where the sex ratio of workers is skewed, such as military bases.
Rather than ensuring men and women face equal wait times, he said the goal is to have enough facilities so there are no lines.
In some instances the Americans with Disabilities Act has sparked the problem. In order to comply, some owners of small shops and restaurants have converted rooms that used to be multi-stall into big single-stall, accessible rooms, Mr. Brubaker said.
But he said the pressure to add more restrooms is growing, sparked by an outcry from women waiting in line and by other health issues. He said that after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare from a few years ago, hand washing became a big priority, but many people are put off from washing their hands because of long lines for those waiting to use the toilet.
At Wednesday’s hearing, several lawmakers told stories of encountering women who end up ditching their own restrooms and using the men’s rooms instead. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat who helped secure a parity law in his home state of Tennessee, said he got on the case after attending a concert and seeing a women’s bathroom line so long that they were heading for the men’s rooms instead.
“Those women were in distress, as well as being a little inebriated,” he said.
That points the way toward some solutions.
Mr. Brubaker said since single-stall accessible restrooms can fit only one person anyway, they can be labeled as unisex, so whoever’s next in line can use it.
As for larger restrooms, he said having men and women share the same facility doesn’t appeal to many users.
Mr. Banzhaf, though, said the idea might have promise for a younger generation brought up with coed bathrooms at their colleges. He said from his conversations with students at his school, the concern isn’t so much privacy as it is safety, which is less of an issue at big events, where there are dozens of people using the restrooms at the same time.