Union Slams Changes to Female Restrooms in the Library of Congress

Posted December 23, 2010 at 2:14pm

Updated 3:33 p.m.

The Architect of the Capitol failed in its attempt to renovate Library of Congress restrooms to make them fully accessible and safer, and now the $3 million project has drawn the ire of an employee union that claims the project has unacceptably reduced the number of female facilities in the Adams Building.

The AOC has installed a vestibule in bathrooms in three of the building’s four quadrants and is working on the fourth. But the space requirement means removing sinks and toilets, and Library of Congress Professional Guild President Saul Schniderman is asking them to stop.

“Employees were shocked and dismayed to discover that the Architect of the Capitol was drastically reducing facilities in renovating and redesigning the restrooms,” Schniderman wrote in a Wednesday letter to Architect Stephen Ayers. “The impact of this change was most severe for women.”

Women’s toilet stalls were reduced from 40 to 20 and the number of sinks fell from 20 to 10. With more than 200 women working in the building, that means 10 women for each toilet, Schniderman said.

“At a time when most state laws for ‘potty parity’ in new construction require twice as many facilities for women as for men … the Architect is moving the Library in exactly the opposite direction,” Schniderman wrote. “And this is despite the fact that there are now, and will likely remain, more women than men who work in the Adams Building.”

The union first complained of the disparity in February, after an internal Office of Compliance report found that the renovations achieved neither stated goal of making the bathrooms safer nor more accessible.

The main reason for the significant construction was to improve building egress from the stairwells. The original restrooms open directly into the building’s stairwells — a violation of fire safety law. The renovations aimed to fix that violation while also improving disability access and installing more energy-efficient plumbing.

The OOC report found that although the number of toilets meets federal guidelines, the outer doors may be too heavy for people with disabilities to open.

In the report, OOC inspectors include e-mailed complaints from Library employees. One describes a librarian who had to ask her co-workers to accompany her to the bathroom to open the doors and “make sure she could get out of her wheelchair.”

Furthermore, installing the empty vestibule between the restroom and the stairwell appears completely unnecessary, according to the report.

“No one could explain how this would improve fire safety,” OOC inspectors wrote in the report, though they note that the installation of a fire door on the restrooms abates the original fire code violation. “The current vestibule configuration does not meet fire code requirements for an alternative to direct access due to the vent in the inner door.”

The vestibules, they write, “are not required, and as installed, provide no significant additional protection during a fire emergency.”

Schniderman is asking that Ayers halt the construction of any vestibules in the building’s fourth and yet-unrenovated quadrant and remove them from the rest of the building.

The hope, he said, is that sinks and toilets could be added in the future and to remove “this second hurdle” for people with disabilities “after getting past the heavy outer fire door.”

Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki said the vestibules were a neccessary addition.

“The new restroom vestibules are necessary to be in compliance with modern fire codes. We’re working with LOC management and the Guild on restroom parity issues and studying options for installing door assistance hardware; working within the parameters of an historic building,” she said.