4 Tips on Work Uniform

Any employer who does not reimburse employees’ for work uniform expenses may result in an employee’s lawsuit and over $100,000 in damages.

By: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Aliana has just got a job working for a retail store specializing in teen apparel. Her boss requires employees to wear work uniforms, and Aliana wonders what that means in her situation. Looking at the other employees, she notices that the women wear jeans and black tops, the shirts marked with a store logo in red. Aliana asks her employer about the uniform, because at her previous place of work she only followed a dress code. Her boss explains that dress codes are too vague, and he wants his employees to stand out in the store so that customers can easily approach them to ask questions. He tells Aliana that she will have to purchase a pair of jeans if she doesn’t own one, but that he will reimburse her for the company shirt. Aliana wonders about the meaning of work uniforms, and whether what she is experiencing is standard for a workplace.

1. Work Uniform Meaning

It is common for businesses to require that employees wear uniforms while working. Uniforms can range in style from a shirt and hat with a logo to a complicated outfit reflecting the company’s personality. Uniforms are a valuable tool for employers. First, they create a sense of belonging and community among employees, because everyone is dressed alike. They also distinguish employees from customers, which is helpful when a store or other business is busy and customers need to hail an associate for assistance. Uniforms are also helpful in that they prevent the need for dress codes, which are often vague and hard to enforce.

That said, it is important for both employers and employees to understand the guidelines surrounding uniforms.

2. What Makes a Uniform

Uniforms may be defined as certain items of clothing that employees must wear in a particular location and that cannot be worn at other establishments in the same profession. Employers must reimburse employees for buying required uniforms. If an employer establishes a dress code in place of requiring a uniform, he or she does not have to reimburse employees for the expense of buying clothes.

Example A: Tatiana is hired to work as a server at Matryoshka, a Sherman Oaks restaurant specializing in Russian cuisine. Her boss Igor requires that all the waitstaff wear traditional Russian clothing, including an embroidered white shirt, red skirt, and a tiara called a kokoshnik. Tatiana has no problem with the uniform, but she cannot afford to buy the clothes using her own money. Igor, however, refuses to pay for the uniform. This is illegal. Under California law, Igor must reimburse Tatiana for the cost of the restaurant uniform.

Example B: Ursula is the manager of a coffee shop. She requires that her employees follow a dress code but does not have a specific uniform. She asks that her employees wear khakis and a white shirt. One of her employees, Crystal, asks to be reimbursed because she had to purchase a pair of khakis. Ursula explains that because these are generic clothes that can be worn elsewhere, she does not have to reimburse Crystal. This is true: there is no shop logo, and in theory, the outfit could be worn to work at other shops or cafes.

3. Uniform vs. Dress Code

Depending on the profession, some employees must wear specific types of clothing. For example:

  • Construction workers might be required to wear work boots
  • Restaurant workers may need to wear non-skid shoes
  • Hospital workers may need to wear scrubs

In these instances, the items of clothing are wearable at other places of work within the industry. A restaurant worker will always need a good pair of non-skid shoes at whichever restaurant they work. Nurses require scrubs at whatever hospital or clinic they work at, and construction workers must always have a sturdy pair of work boots, whatever job site they are at.

Uniforms are items of clothing specific to a workplace that cannot be worn outside of that particular location. Examples include:

  • Requiring employees to wear a specific company’s clothing
  • Specific shirts that an employee must wear every day
  • Anything that has the company logo or name on it

Example A: Tony works for a construction company where he is responsible for operating a Bobcat. Part of his work dress code includes a protective helmet. Tony’s employer does not reimburse Tony for the helmet because it is necessary at any construction site. It is not specific to this particular job. When Tony quits this job, he moves to another construction company that also requires a helmet. He is able to wear the one he already has.

Example B: Miranda works at a breakfast café called Phil’s Flapjacks. Her employee uniform consists of a white tee-shirt featuring a smiling cartoon stack of pancakes with the word “Phil’s” emblazoned across the front. Her employer, Phil himself, has not reimbursed Miranda for the uniform. This is illegal, because Miranda cannot wear that shirt anywhere else in the service industry. If she worked at a café called “Kyle’s Donuts,” she could not wear a shirt that says “Phil’s.” Therefore, the uniform is specific to the business and should be reimbursed by the employer.

4. The Legal Dilemma

It is common for employers to want employees to follow a specific standard of dress but not compensate them for it. An example of this may be found in the clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch, which is notorious for its strict dress code. The store mandates that employees wear company clothes and even controls the length of their hair and fingernails. It even requires that employees change their clothes with the season, only buying them from the company catalogue. Under this policy, employees who do not follow the dress code are sent home. Technically, this “dress code” is actually a uniform, because Abercrombie and Fitch is requiring its employees to purchase clothes from a specific store, among other forced purchases. Had the store simply told employees to wear jeans and a button-up, and not mandated where to buy them, it could have avoided legal trouble. But since the store forced its employees to buy company clothes as mandates uniforms and did not reimburse them, it is facing thousands of lawsuits.

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