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What are the rules for providing, paying for employee uniforms?

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Q. We would like to require employees to pay for their own uniforms. Is this legal? If not, we would like to require employees to purchase uniforms. Then we would reimburse them. Is that OK, or must we purchase the uniforms and provide them to the employees?

A. This is a surprisingly complicated topic, but here are the short answers to your questions.

  • No, employees cannot be required to pay for uniforms.
  • Yes, you can require employees to purchase uniforms and later reimburse them for the expense.
  • No, you are not required to have uniforms in stock to hand out to employees.

These answers depend, of course, on the type of clothing you intend to require employees to wear.

Section 452 of California’s Labor Code states: “Nothing in this article shall prohibit an employer from prescribing the weight, color, quality, texture, style, form and make of uniforms required to be worn by his employees.” So, em­­ployers may require employees to wear uniforms, and the Wage Orders require employers to provide and maintain these uniforms.

A uniform that an employer must provide is an accessory or item of apparel with distinctive color or design that can only be associated with a particular company.

On the other hand, employers are not required to pay for uniforms that are usable elsewhere. For example, a nurse’s or waiter’s uniform (lacking a design or logo) that can be worn regardless of where the employee works is not considered a uniform.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) also requires employers to provide and maintain uniforms that are a specific type and style of clothing. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division takes the position that employers are not required to furnish employees with uniforms if, for example, the uniform consists of a white shirt with dark pants or a dark skirt if they are “general ordinary type of street clothing.”

The California Labor Code addresses payment and maintenance of uniforms. Employers are required to “indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties.” The California Industrial Welfare Commission Orders also state, “When uniforms are required by the employer to be worn by the employee as a condition of employment, such uniforms shall be provided and maintained by the employer.”

“Provided” does not necessarily mean “handed to.” Although an employer may be able to stock and provide uniforms to employees, they are not required to do so. Employees may be required to purchase uniforms but the employer must fully reimburse the employee for the expense incurred (which includes shipping, tax, etc.).

The Industrial Welfare Commission has stated that it would be reasonable to require employees to maintain uniforms that are made of fabrics requiring minimal care, such as washing and drying. If uniforms require ironing, dry cleaning or separate laundering (due to heavy soil or color), the employer must either maintain or pay for the maintenance of all uniforms.

According to the Division of Labor Standards Enforce­­ment, employers that prefer not to maintain uniforms may pay each affected employee a weekly maintenance allowance of one hour’s pay at the California minimum wage rate (assuming that an hour is a realistic estimate of the time it takes a worker to maintain his or her uniform).

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