Toilet breaks are a workplace right, as is having a drink of water, according to the Federal Court.
The unusual ruling is the first of its kind in Australia, with Justice John Logan unable to find any other similar cases in Australia.
Instead, he looked to a decision from a court in Ohio for guidance.
The ruling comes as a result of a McDonald’s manager telling employees the company had no obligation to let them go to the bathroom outside scheduled breaks.
Toilet breaks are a workplace right court rules
It all started when the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union brought a case on behalf of Chiara Staines.
Staines worked as a crew member for Tantex, a McDonald’s franchisee in Queensland that operates six restaurants.
The union accused the company of failing to provide Staines and other workers 10-minute paid breaks for shifts over four hours.
The breaks are stipulated under the company’s enterprise agreement.
As a result, Tantex’s general manager, Christopher Crenicean, responded with a group Facebook post.
In it, he said the company is doing workers “a favour” by letting them use the bathroom because otherwise they could only do so during the rostered break.
“What this means is that if we implement this over our current situation, on your shift – this 10 minute break would be the only time you would ever be permitted to have a drink or go to the toilet.
“So I hope you don’t get thirsty on your next shift because we just wouldn’t be able to allow a drink. Fair is Fair right?”
Toilet breaks are a workplace right
However, Justice Logan found this is “a reckless falsehood and a serious one at that”.
He said workers are entitled to use the bathroom, in addition to the paid 10 minute breaks.
He also said it is absurd for state workplace health and safety laws to require employers to provide bathrooms and drinking facilities but not to let staff use them when they needed to, within reason.
“For an employee just to dash off for a drink leaving hamburger patties or fries to burn might not be reasonable.
“Leaving a parched employee sweating in the kitchen with broken air conditioning would be a different question.
“The right to access the toilet or a drink of water was, in my view, a workplace right.”
Justice Logan described Crenicean’s post as not knowingly false.
Instead, he said he had “shot from the hip” to try to stop employees tagging each other on the union content on Facebook.
Employer admits failing to provide breaks
Tantex admitted it failed to provide lawful breaks to Staines.
Josh Cullinan, secretary of the RAFFWU, estimates the breaks total about $800 in lost wages and also $1,000 in compensation.
The Court is still to determine penalties for the breaches.
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