A Honolulu nonprofit is paying back wages to three employees who were fired after they complained about lack of access to a unisex bathroom.

Waikiki Health, a community health center with multiple clinics on Oahu, has agreed to offer jobs back to the three employers who were terminated in March.

Two of the three employees fired identify as transgender, and all three lost their jobs a week after raising concerns about the nonprofit limiting access to a single-sex restroom.

In March, Waikiki Health CEO Phyllis Dendle said the three were terminated because their jobs were redundant and not due to retaliation. All three employees subsequently filed a joint complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Dendle signed a notice to current Waikiki Health staff last week letting them know about the settlement and their rights.

“You have the right to freely bring restroom access issues and complaints to us on behalf of yourself and other employees and we will not do anything to interfere with your exercise of that right,” the notice says.

Waikiki Health is offering jobs back to three employees who were fired a week after complaining about lack of access to a unisex bathroom. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Waikiki Health also promises not to “discipline, discharge or otherwise retaliate against any employee” for exercising their rights to bring issues and complaints to the nonprofit.

“Overall it’s a huge relief,” said Elizer Rios, one of the three employees who received the settlement.

At the same time, Rios says it feels like the settlement took too long. When she lost her job, she wasn’t able to file for unemployment because she had only moved to Hawaii for the position three months prior. She relied on family and community support and income from sex work while looking for another full-time job. She finally landed another one running a retail store four months later that pays more than her $48,000-per-year nonprofit salary.

Still, Rios says while the settlement is welcome, she feels like the months of missed income took their toll and plans to use the money to help pay down her debt.

Wendy Wink Taylor, Rios’ former colleague who is also part of the settlement, agrees.

I could’ve used it when I thought I was going to be evicted and on the streets,” she said.

The single mother of two was also earning $48,000 a year at Waikiki Health, but says the back wages through the settlement were taxed at 47%, a rate that Taylor said was much higher than if she had never been fired. 

Like Rios, Taylor doesn’t plan to return to Waikiki Health. Instead she plans to put her settlement check toward launching a new permanent hair removal school that she hopes will help the transgender community.

Waikiki Health declined to comment on this article. The third employee involved in the settlement, Cameron Woods, did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Gender-Neutral Restrooms

The Waikiki Health case started when Woods and Rios were told they’d both have to stop using the only unisex restroom in the building.

Woods, Rios and Taylor said they brought their concerns to Dendle, the CEO, who told them plumbing issues prompted the nonprofit to limit access to the unisex bathroom to people with disabilities and that other employees with “gender issues” did not have a problem using gender-specific bathrooms.

“I just don’t understand why you can’t use the women’s or men’s restrooms up here,” Dendle said, according to a human resources complaint that Rios later filed with Waikiki Health.

Dendle declined to address what was said during meetings but in an email to Waikiki Health staff in March, said she granted the workers access to the bathroom the day she heard their request. She then eliminated their jobs a week later, telling staff there was not enough work to justify their roles.

Olivia Hunt, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality, said in an interview Tuesday it’s important for all businesses to be cognizant of workers’ rights but particularly health care organizations that serve transgender clients.

“When you have any business or any employer really who is dismissing the real needs and concerns of their transgender nonbinary employees as just ‘gender issues’ that’s really concerning,” she said. “How will any trans patient be treated going through there? That is something that a lot of our cisgender peers just never have to think about.”

Ian Anderson, legal services project manager at the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California, said that the transgender community is not a monolith and it makes sense that while some transgender workers might feel comfortable in a gendered bathroom, others might prefer a single-stall, gender-neutral restroom.

Many transgender people have experienced harassment in bathrooms to the point where they feel unsafe. A 2015 national survey by Hunt’s organization found nearly a quarter of transgender respondents said “someone had questioned or challenged their presence in a restroom in the past year.” More than half avoided using a public restroom over the past year in order to avoid any problems.

Hunt said going to the restroom is a regular, human, mundane experience, but it’s also a very vulnerable one, and it can be incredibly stressful for many transgender people.

“If we do not go into the restroom where we are the safest, we are putting ourselves at risk,” Hunt said.

She noted people who avoid using the bathroom out of concern for their safety can face kidney complications, while anxiety over using the bathroom at work can also hurt work performance.

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission says when possible, employers should provide employees access to a single-stall unisex bathrooms.

“Access to unisex bathrooms is in general a great best practice,” said Anderson from the Transgender Law Center. “It just serves so many people and so many situations.”

Anderson said that on paper, Hawaii has really good protections for transgender people but he understands workers may face a tricky balance of speaking up without prompting retaliation.

“Folks do have rights and options and we encourage people to seek support from their community and when they have the bandwidth, to try to bring complaints and try to assert their rights,” he said.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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