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Women Say Plant Limits Restroom Use : Nabisco: Employees file complaints with EEOC alleging discrimination. Some say they wore diapers for protection.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal officials have been asked to investigate the restriction of bathroom privileges for female employees of a Nabisco Foods plant in Oxnard, a practice so prohibitive that some women say they were forced to wear diapers on the job, The Times has learned.

Some assembly line workers at the 3rd Street factory say they have even suffered bladder infections because they have been forbidden from going to the bathroom when they need to.

In complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, workers accuse Nabisco of discriminating against women by restricting their restroom visits while allowing men to go whenever they want to.

A Nabisco spokeswoman in New Jersey refused to comment on the allegations because of pending litigation.

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“They would say that we would have to wait, that we couldn’t go until break time,” said Lydia Hernandez, a 25-year employee who said she lost her job in 1993 after tangling with company supervisors about the policy.

Hernandez said she was among dozens of workers at the Nabisco plant--which makes steak sauce, chili pepper products and the world’s supply of Grey Poupon mustard--who resorted to wearing diapers and other means of protection because of the bathroom restrictions.

“It’s humiliating to have to walk in there like a baby,” the 59-year-old Saticoy resident said. “It was hell, a nightmare from the minute I got into work in the morning not knowing whether I would be able to hold it.”

Similar issues have shoved their way into the national spotlight in recent years.

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At least 10 states, including California, now mandate so-called potty parity through laws that require public spaces such as theaters and stadiums to provide more toilets for women than for men. Such laws are based on research that women need about twice as much time in restrooms as men.

And in Texas, the EEOC is investigating a case where a manufacturer allegedly fired women rather than add a toilet. But lawyers representing the women in their fight against the Oxnard company say they have never heard of workers elsewhere having to wear diapers on the job because they aren’t allowed to use the restroom.

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Eight workers at the Oxnard company have filed sex discrimination complaints with the EEOC in recent months.

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The complaints are precursors to a class-action lawsuit being prepared by lawyers in Oxnard and Chicago.

Paul Strauss, with a Chicago law firm that has successfully teamed with California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard to bring sex discrimination lawsuits against two Ventura County packinghouses, said he was stunned when he heard the allegations.

“I thought it was horrible,” he said. “‘You have people going long, long hours without an adequate chance to go to the bathroom. We are seeking to enjoin that practice.”

Oxnard attorney Gregory Ramirez said he was equally shocked when Hernandez first walked into his office last May and told him about the situation.

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Before taking the case, Ramirez said he asked Hernandez to bring in workers to back her story. Hernandez gathered women who told of being denied restroom visits, even if they had a doctor’s note saying they needed to go whenever the need arose.

And the women told him they had resorted to wearing diapers and other forms of protection in case they failed to make it to the bathroom on time.

“We’re talking about women in their 50s and 60s who work under these conditions just because they are afraid of losing their jobs,” Ramirez said. “You have women who have given all of their lives to this company and all they’re asking for is human decency, and it just falls on deaf ears.”

The Oxnard plant employs more than 250 workers on the average, the company spokeswoman said.

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The women who filed the federal complaints are seasonal workers, hired during a peak period that runs from about July to October. During that time, the workers say hundreds of women on the food processing line share 10 to 15 bathroom stalls.

It was only in the past few years that supervisors began cracking down on bathroom privileges, the workers said.

Restroom visits often were limited to break times, they said. Some of those caught sneaking off the line to use the restroom said they were threatened with being sent home without pay.

“I have worn Kotex and toilet paper in the past and had a urinary tract infection in 1992,” 37-year employee Connie Jimenez wrote in her EEOC complaint. “These practices are discriminatory in that men are not restricted in using the bathroom as women are.”

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In an interview last week, the 62-year-old Oxnard woman said she worked in constant fear of losing control of her bladder.

“In order to wait my turn I had to do something,” she said. “Some of the women even cry because they can’t hold it. I want that to stop already. It’s too much.”

Jimenez and others say they took their complaints to their local Teamsters union, but were told nothing could be done because bathroom regulations are a matter of company policy.

Scott Dennison, the union’s newly elected secretary-treasurer, acknowledged that union leaders have ignored complaints about the issue.

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“We do know that the previous administrations looked the other way on those complaints when women at Nabisco brought it to their attention,” Dennison said last week.

Dennison said the union’s new administration, which took office in October, has pledged to support the women’s fight against Nabisco.

“What you’re really dealing with is how an employer treats its people,” he said. “This is crazy. We’ll go as far as striking them if we have to.”

Citing a policy against commenting on open cases where lawsuits have not been filed, an EEOC spokesman in Washington would not confirm whether complaints had been made against Nabisco in Oxnard or whether an investigation had been opened.

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But Public Affairs Specialist Michael Widomski said, generally speaking, the EEOC will notify a company within 10 days once a charge has been filed against it.

The federal agency then has 180 days to investigate the complaint, or it could choose not to investigate. Either way, attorneys representing the women can request a “right to sue” letter after the 180-day period.

During that time, the lawyers say, they will be preparing a class-action suit that they hope will be ready to file this summer.

Just last week, California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard agreed to join the team of lawyers preparing the case.

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Attorneys for the women say they want to force Nabisco to permanently change its policy regarding bathroom visits for the assembly line workers.

In addition, they say they want the company to pay medical bills for women who suffered urinary tract infections or other illnesses as a result of the policy. Finally, they want workers who lost wages for failing to comply with the bathroom restrictions to be repaid.

Lee Pliscou, the CRLA attorney who teamed with Strauss to file the sex-discrimination suits against the Ventura County packing houses, said other factories with assembly lines employ workers whose job is to substitute for those who need to use the restroom.

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“Hearing these stories that these women have told, I’m saddened and angered,” Pliscou said. “I feel embarrassed that our community would permit this. I’m embarrassed this is how we treat people.”


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