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Electrolux Could Pay for Bathroom Break Denial

(CN) - An assembly-line worker who claims she was fired for urinating in a box after Electrolux denied her a restroom break can proceed with wrongful termination claims, a federal judge ruled.

Lily Prince claims that a medical condition requires her to use the restroom more frequently than most people. She had been working at Electrolux's plant in St. Cloud, Minn., for nearly five years when she asked her supervisor for a bathroom break at approximately 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2012.

The supervisor, Eric Nguyen, allegedly refused to cover Prince's station on the assembly line, however, and Prince says she waited until 1:20 to relieve herself in a box behind a barrel near her station, fearing that she would be punished if she left to use the restroom.

Prince was fired within the week and sued Electrolux Home Products in Minneapolis under the Minnesota Occupational Safety Act (MOSHA).

She "alleges that Nguyen had been known not to allow restroom breaks when requested, and on one occasion he set a box next to plaintiff and told her to urinate in the box instead of the restroom," U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank explained. "Plaintiff alleges that on another occasion, Nguyen told plaintiff to urinate in a bucket placed by her station on the line. Further, plaintiff alleges that other employees have soiled themselves because they were not relieved from their stations, and one employee resorted to urinating in a bucket because she was not given a restroom break."

An arbitrator concluded that, even though Electrolux had given Prince a "final warning" prior to the incident, her urinating in the cardboard box did not justify her firing, and the firing subsequently violated her union's collective bargaining agreement with Electrolux.

Electrolux fought Prince's complaint by saying it need only "provide" restrooms, and that "federal regulation does not speak to, address, or otherwise provide a regulatory framework that addresses the frequency of use which must be provided by law."

Prince countered by citing two letters related to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) that clarify the language of the law as meaning toilets must be made available "promptly" to employees.

Judge Frank found Friday that it was premature to determine whether Prince "was denied access to toilet facilities, and therefore that toilet facilities were not 'provided,' or made available, to her as required under MOSHA."

Electrolux likewise failed to challenge Prince's standing on the basis of her failure to contact the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry about her working conditions.

Prince proved that she has a private right of action through Electrolux's alleged discrimination against her, according to the ruling.

As for Prince's allegation that Electrolux violated a Minnesota statute by failing to provide adequate restroom breaks, Judge Frank wrote that "the CBA does not specifically address the provision of adequate time to use the restroom, and defendant has not established that it was not required to abide by Minnesota Statute section 177.253."

Frank also disagreed that the arbitrator's decision was binding.

"While the arbitrator considered the issue of whether plaintiff's termination, after being put on a 'last chance agreement' for behavior unrelated to bathroom use, was justified by plaintiff's use of the box to urinate on August 2, 2012, the arbitration did not specifically address the issue of bathroom access at defendant's plant or plaintiff's present claims under MOSHA and state-law," the 19-page opinion states.

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