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Brake for Bathroom Breaks

Services like Uber and Lyft incentivize their drivers to never stop driving — but what happens when nature calls?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

There’s a scene in the fourth season of Weeds where Mary-Louise Parker’s character Nancy gets stuck in abysmal border-crossing traffic on the way to Mexico. After sipping on her ever-present Starbucks Venti iced latte for hours, she breaks down, removes the top from the empty cup and pees into it. A small child in a neighboring car stares at her. It’s a human, relatable moment; and, in Nancy’s edgy-yet-whimsical way, it’s even sort of charming.

That’s not exactly how it feels for ridesharing drivers, many of whom might as well be strapped into their cars without relief.

Recently, my colleague Allison P. Davis had her own Uber urine jar encounter. She was about to exit an unusually horrible Uber Pool ride that included fried chicken and a backseat argument, when her purse strap snagged on something under her seat. As she pulled it, a jar came tumbling out and spilled. “I said, ‘Oh I’m sorry! I knocked over your…’” and stopped speaking as she realized what it was, making eye contact with the driver. They both knew. They said nothing to each other. She shut the door and walked away from a pee-soaked passenger seat floor.

At first, this sounds like a funny, if stomach-turning story. It’s not — it’s depressing and revealing. The intense working conditions of the ridesharing market — and the sharing economy in general — are often forgotten, while issues about consumer safety and pricing grab the headlines.

Cab drivers, of course, faced the bathroom break issue for years. And just this month, a BBC report found that Amazon delivery drivers urinate and defecate inside their delivery vans in order to keep up with intense demand. Hours on hours in a car, whatever the job, is not conducive to bathroom breaks. The difference, though, is a common complaint of on-demand service drivers: They legally can’t do anything about it. Cab drivers and truck drivers have unions and are considered actual employees and not independent contractors. These protections afford them mandated break times, luxuries that sharing economy drivers don’t get.

UberPeople.net is the biggest nonofficial Uber driver forum. Despite its name, the forum is actually a community for ridesharing drivers for Lyft, Postmates, TaskRabbit, and so on. It’s filled with news, stories, advice, criticism, and uplifting messages. Mostly, it’s a place for drivers to communicate about whatever they’re experiencing. A quick search reveals that plenty of them have encountered the pee jar issue.

“I was a full-time driver. Not anymore,” one of the forum’s users who goes by the handle Jollyrodger tells me. “I realized early that as a driver you have to maximize your time. I was wasting my time stopping at place after place in the beginning, and your time gets eaten up. If you’re driving, say, four times per day for a pitstop in seven hours of driving, add up the extra miles and extra time. Seven hours becomes eight,” he says.

“Then there is the problem of forgetting to go … and [on] an extra long trip? The rider is paying for the trip — and any stops along the way […] It’s kind of like the driver who isn’t gassed up, same scenario. The rider gets angry for even an extra minute on their dime and time.” The internet is littered with advice from other drivers on pee jars and locations (empty Starbucks cups à la Nancy Botwin, Gatorade bottles, sealable water bottles, freely out the door, down sewer grates).

It’s a popular discussion in part because public urination is a hefty ticket — in the worst instances, it can result in perpetrators being forced to register as sex offenders. And public-use restrooms can be hard to find, especially at late hours. But the most pressing reason as to why drivers forsake bathroom breaks is to stay on the road and keep driving.

Uber’s magazine, Momentum, published an edition last year advising drivers to make sure they’re hydrated and emphasizing the importance of pit stops; Uber suggests hotels, coffee shops, libraries, parks, gas stations, supermarkets, and port-a-potties. But while the company can suggest these things, they also offer many incentives to do the exact opposite: “Power drivers” are highly rewarded. Earlier this year, Uber guaranteed drivers who logged more than 60 hours a week $2,000 for that period of time. Things like accepting 90 percent of ride requests and completing as many drives as possible in a given amount of time can lead to bonuses. Lyft has similar policies, wherein the more you drive, the smaller the cut Lyft will take.

Harry Campbell is a former Uber and Lyft driver who now runs a blog called The Rideshare Guy. I asked him if he knew anything about the proliferation of Uber and Lyft pee jars and why there’s such a problem getting time for bathroom breaks. “Some drivers have them but they’re not super open about it for obvious reasons,” says Campbell. “There are some definite issues, though, as far as the physical demands of driving, since you can easily not get out of the car for 8–12 hours at a time.”

Campbell linked me to something he posted on Facebook — a sort of joke about the proposition of having nowhere to pee while driving — that yielded several responses. “I never leave home without my pee bottle, lol,” one person wrote. “It’s not glorious but effective. Gatorade bottle!” said another. Others offer advice on good places to stop and pee — Target, grocery chains. Regardless of the method, it’s clear that the impulse to keep driving no matter what is a serious issue for full-time rideshare or peer-to-peer delivery drivers.

It’s not strictly ridesharing companies’ emphasis on driving as much as possible, though. There’s also a conditioned mentality among drivers. Rand Larson, who drives for Uber and Lyft primarily in the Palm Springs area, says that drivers are encouraged to take breaks when they need to, and to log out when they do so. But it feels like lip service. “There is a subconscious thing that goes on,” Larson says. “If I log out to pee, I might miss a great ride. The time it takes to find a bathroom and use it is fairly significant. It’s hard to log out for anything, even for basic human functions.”

Larson told me about a time he ignored basic human functions. A long ride to a concert became longer when he hit traffic — the passenger eventually decided to get out and walk the last mile because they’d been sitting for so long. Larson had to pee, and had no choice but to use an empty water bottle … which ended up not being large enough to hold the contents. “I overflowed onto my seat, then I spilled on myself as I tried to put the lid on,” he says. “I was sitting in my own pee, my shirt had pee spilled on it, and I was stuck in traffic for another 30 minutes. And it was a warm afternoon.”

Larson noticed that surge rates were x10 — so instead of heading home, he went to the nearest Target to buy a change of clothes and clean up. But as he pulled into the parking lot, before he even got out of the car, he got a ride request. He took it.

“When I picked up the guy, I noticed that my car smelled like an 8-year-old boy’s room,” he says. “Serious urine smell. I offered to open my sunroof and the rider thanked me. I pretended nothing was wrong, and maybe he didn’t notice.” Between the ride to the concert and the one after, he made $250. “I ended up with diaper rash. You can see why it’s hard to log out to pee. I’ll sit in my own pee for $250.”

The idea of sitting in your own urine is harrowing enough, but there’s also the question of safety. On night rides or in desolate areas, drivers worry about stopping at the wrong mini-mart or going behind a dumpster in a dark alley. Many of them advise using SitOrSquat, which helps you find a clean, free restroom in your area. This is obviously harder in more remote places, though. (And, it should go without saying, all of this is considerably more difficult for women drivers.)

Last year, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that Uber drivers were employees and not contractors, but Uber appealed the decision and the case is ongoing. There have been a few other legal steps in the direction of changing ridesharing drivers to employees, but nothing official has been set yet, so for the time being, things remain the same. In a paper from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA titled “Matters Settled but Not Resolved: Worker Misclassification in the Rideshare Sector,” author Pamela Izvanariu writes:

Izvanariu goes on to explain that if drivers were recognized as employees, they would have protections like reimbursement for work-related expenses, workers’ compensation, and, among other things, “meal and rest breaks.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Under OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.141(c)(l)(i), employers must provide toilet facilities that can be used “when [employees] need to do so.” There are no rules about how often employees can use the bathroom, so the rule is basically: Employers need to provide toilets and employees can use them as often as they need to. So should ridesharing drivers be reclassified, not only would Uber, Lyft, and other companies have to legally offer breaks, they’d have to provide a physical space with bathrooms.

As it stands, Uber, Lyft, and other companies can recommend their contracted workers take breaks to stretch and eat and walk around and yes, pee, but they aren’t required to make them. “I think as more on-demand companies shift toward profitability, they are looking to cut their costs and squeeze more work out of their drivers,” says Campbell. “And as pay goes down, drivers are required to work more and do more trips in the same amount of time in order to earn enough money to get by. Sadly, bathroom breaks are one of those things that these employers don’t really take into account since it seems so minor, but when you’re driving around rush-hour traffic and need to find a place with a suitable bathroom and a place to park, that could cost you valuable time where you could otherwise be delivering and making money or meeting quotas.”

Finding urine-filled bottles on the side of the road is a time-honored tradition in America. But this defense of drivers is not to say that keeping a jar of pee in your car and then emptying it on the street is anything but unsanitary and disgusting. Still, the gross-out factor should be outweighed by the human factor: Customer service has always been demoralizing, and the developing economic model that incentivizes employees to be “on-demand” as much as possible might be making it worse.