MONTPELIER — Since Act 127, the so-called “Bathroom Bill,” became law July 1, gender-neutral restrooms have become the “new normal” for Vermont’s public spaces.
The task now is to engender full compliance with the new requirements among businesses that may be unaware of them, according to state officials charged with enforcing the law.
“In virtually every business that I have been in, from restaurants to retail stores to car dealerships, the signage has been out of compliance with the new standards,” said Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
“This is a very easy and inexpensive fix, so I suspect that most business owners and managers are simply unaware of the new requirements,” Richards said.
Act 127, passed by the state Legislature in May, provides equal restroom access for people whose gender identity may be different from the gender assigned at birth. This includes people with disabilities who may be traveling with a personal aide who is of a different gender.
“In addition, having bathrooms that are gender free benefits everyone as it allows anyone to use an available restroom rather than waiting in line until the one previously marked for men or women is free. It is really just common sense and common decency,” Richards said.
The new law requires that all single-stall restrooms be useable by any gender and marked as gender neutral. This includes public venues and places of “public accommodation,” regardless of their private status.
A public building or place of public accommodation is defined as “any school, restaurant, store, establishment, or other facility at which services, facilities, goods, privileges, advantages, benefits or accommodations are offered to the general public,” according to the new law.
“The key words in the definition relative to this question are ‘offered to the general public,’” Richards said.
“If a private club or veteran organization allows members of the general public to come in and participate in its services, then it is a public accommodation and must comply,” she said. “If it is truly a private club, limited at all times to members, it would not be within the definition.”
Compliance is “easy and inexpensive,” which should reduce the need for enforcement, said Michael Desrochers, Division of Fire Safety director for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which is authorized to inspect businesses for compliance.
“The DPS believes that compliance with this law can be achieved by educating the public and business owners regarding the requirements of the law,” Desrochers said.
Depending on the number of restrooms, the cost could amount to “a few hundred dollars,” Richards said.
“Compliant signage costs $30-$40, I believe, based on our internet searches,” she said. “All restrooms that are accessible for people with disabilities also need to be compliant with all requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act related to size, height of fixtures, door handles and locks, and grab bars.”
While there is no specific penalty for noncompliance, Richards said a person affected by the failure to comply could file a complaint at the Human Rights Commission “based on gender identity or disability.”
If the case is not settled and the business refuses to install compliant signage, the Human Rights Commission could, “after an impartial investigation, find reasonable grounds and ultimately has the authority to sue the business for damages, attorney’s fees,” Richards added.
“I sincerely hope that it would not come to that as all we are looking for is compliance,” she said.
For the Speakeasy Cafe in Rutland, compliance is a non-issue, as the small coffee shop has only one unmarked restroom, “so it wouldn’t affect us,” according to an employee.
Since the passage of Act 127, the Human Rights Commission has received calls about businesses that are not in compliance, as well as emails from businesses looking for additional information, Richards said.
The commission and the Department of Public Service recommend that businesses install a simple “Restroom” sign and remove any written or visual signage, including the common male/female symbols.
“Businesses should also ensure that signage complies with any ADA requirements, including braille identifying it as a restroom, and if the restroom is also handicapped accessible, the universal accessibility sign,” Richards said.