A lot has been said about Amazon’s workplace culture over the past month, but one of the top problems cited by employees has nothing to do with parental leave or unrealistic work expectations.
According to documents from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, the most consistent formal complaint from Amazonians is that there aren’t enough men’s bathrooms to accommodate all the male employees working at the company.
One of Amazon’s buildings, known as Blackfoot, became so overrun with male workers last year that the company agreed to build additional men’s restrooms to appease state officials who were fielding complaints from employees.
This is not common. A Washington State Department of Labor & Industries spokesperson says the agency receives a “very small number” of complaints each year about the number of bathrooms available at workplaces. Most of the complaints are from the construction industry, where bathrooms are harder to come by.
But public records obtained by GeekWire show it has been a constant struggle for Amazon as the e-commerce giant has grown faster than ever over the past few years — with the majority of employees being male.
Different Amazon workers have complained to L&I about long lines at the men’s restrooms at least once every year since 2012. None of those complaints resulted in citations. However, each time Amazon was forced to count bathrooms floor-by-floor to prove it was meeting legal minimums.
The L&I spokesperson added that it’s pretty atypical for one company to receive as many complaints as Amazon, but all of the state’s in-person visits have found the bathrooms to be within the state’s standards.
Amazon declined our request to comment on this story.
The company wasn’t cited following a complaint about its Blackfoot building in November of 2014, but Amazon did tell officials back then that it had 150 male employees on a single floor where there were four toilets. L&I requires at least six “fixtures”— toilets and urinals — for a workplace with that many men, though the rule applies to entire buildings and not particular floors. But Amazon still said it was going to build an extra men’s bathroom on every other floor in the building to remedy the situation.
A male employee who spoke to GeekWire outside the Blackfoot building on Monday said things haven’t changed much over the past year. He talked about his daily routine of searching for an open stall, often visiting several floors before finding one. The most he has ever visited is five.
The worker said he has brought the issue up internally, but never contacted the state directly or filed a formal complaint himself.
“People don’t complain. They just get used to it,” said another worker who has also seen the problem firsthand.
Most of the employees we approached on the Amazon campus weren’t interested in talking about the state of the restrooms — not so surprisingly. About half of those who did weigh in said it was a problem, and about half said they’ve never run into any issues.
It all seems to depend on which Amazon floor you work on, and how male-dominated that floor happens to be.
“Due to a typical gender imbalance of our employees we typically have long lines for using restroom stalls in most of the South Lake Union Amazon offices,” one anonymous Amazon employee wrote in a complaint filed with the state in May of this year. Employees “cannot schedule a need to use the restroom in a timely manner, and there has been no consequences to the company for providing hostile working conditions for years.”
Problems revealed by employee complaints
GeekWire obtained these filings and Amazon’s correspondence with L&I through a public records request for employee complaints about hostile working conditions. We filed the request in the wake of a widely read report from The New York Times that included anecdotes from workers who said they were mistreated and overworked.
Not every complaint is subject to public disclosure, like claims of sexual harassment, but of the nine dating back to 2012 that GeekWire was given access to, four were about the restroom problem.
The bathroom disparity is a somewhat peculiar and less obvious side effect of the male-dominated nature of most technology workplaces. But it’s an issue that sheds light on the broader diversity issues facing Amazon and companies across the industry.
Amazon — like many tech giants — has recently acknowledged the lack of diversity within its ranks and vowed to work to attract more female and minority workers going forward.
According to the company’s federal EEO-1 filing, which Amazon voluntarily made public online, 40 percent of the entire company was female last year. Things become less diverse when you climb up the company’s ranks. Once you get to the “professionals” and managers categories, just 20 percent of workers are female.
So what does that look like in an office setting?
State inquiries into Amazon’s toilets shed unexpected light on this question. For example, according to one L&I report, if you were a female worker on the 9th floor of Amazon’s Varzea building in 2013, you would have been surrounded by 60 men, and just two other women. That meant there was one female worker for every women’s bathroom stall, compared to about 15 men to every fixture.
If that employee took an elevator up one floor, she would find more of the same, with 100 men and 13 women. Up one more level, there would have been 77 men and nine women.
Amazon’s count for the entire building in 2013 came out to 558 men and 105 women.
Amazon’s growing pains
Earlier this summer, when L&I officials were called back out to do another inspection because employees were still complaining, the number of male workers in that building had jumped to 849. That means 291 male workers were added to a single office building over the past 31 months.
In case you were wondering, that building had 17 toilets and 16 urinals, for a total of 33 fixtures. The law requires at least 24 fixtures, meaning Amazon was within the regulations.
“Employees routinely traverse multiple building floors in search of available facilities,” one anonymous complainant wrote in 2012.
“There are 150 males on the 8th floor with 2 urinals and 2 stalls,” another wrote in 2014. “Ever if I were to go to another floor, the situation is the same.”
Certainly, in modern-day American culture, more and more people are taking devices into the restroom, and those habits could contribute to longer lines outside. In that regard, this is not just an Amazon problem.
But Amazon is unusual as a target of official complaints over its restrooms. For its part, public records show Amazon was never cited for breaking any bathroom laws, and the company has taken steps to remedy the complaints. When the ratio got out of whack in 2014, Amazon told labor officials it was due to “unique and temporary density” as the company was getting ready to expand into new buildings and reshuffle workspaces.
“In the meantime, on occasions when associates find the restroom on the 18th floor fully occupied, they are free to use the restrooms on any of the other floors Amazon leases in the building,” Amazon offered as a solution in that case. “That includes 10th floor reception area.”
The bathroom headaches first got attention when an anonymous former employee wrote a post for Vice’s Motherboard blog last month. He described wandering the halls of an Amazon office building in search of a men’s restroom where he could find some peace and quiet. Not only was it hard to find an unoccupied stall, but he was often pestered by coworkers even once he got inside.
“Whenever I needed to go to the bathroom, I went to the floors occupied by the rare teams that had more women than men,” that former employee wrote on Vice. “Amazon Apparel, Amazon Mom, Amazon Baby—these were the places where you had a better shot of getting a free stall in the men’s room. If you were really lucky, and your timing was right, you might even get the bathroom to yourself for a moment. It was a relief from the craziness of Amazon’s corporate culture. These were the best floors.”
“The worst floors were the ones dominated by engineers,” he added. “I regularly saw people bring their laptops into the bathroom, where they would sit on the toilet and write code.”