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January 05, 2006
Employee Uniforms: Do You Have to Pay?

Are your employees required to wear uniforms? If so, whether you're required to foot the bill for the uniforms will depend on whether you're a public or private sector employer. According to a new California appeals court decision (In re Work Uniform Cases, Calif. Court of Appeal (Dist. 1) No. A107130 (2005)), public sector employers are generally off the hook when it comes to paying for their workers' uniforms. We'll review the case and explain how the rules are different for private employers.

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Governments Don't Have to Pay

The new case arose when several employee groups­firefighters, sheriffs, police officers, guards, and forest rangers­filed class action suits against their public sector employers in California, charging that they weren't fully compensated for the costs of purchasing, re-placing, cleaning, and maintaining required work uniforms, in violation of Labor Code Section 2802. This provision requires an employer to reimburse employees for all necessary expenditures or losses they incur as a consequence of performing their job duties.

The appeals court concluded that Section 2802 doesn't require public entities to pay for the entire cost of purchasing and maintaining required work uniforms. But the court's reasoning differed depending on the type of government entity involved:

  • Local governments. City and county governments are not subject to Section 2802 because they have constitutional powers to manage their own affairs and set employee compensation. Compensation includes payment for uniform expenses, said the court, so setting payment for these expenses is within the local government's discretion.
  • State of California. The Government Code specifies that state employees are responsible for purchasing uniforms that are required for employment and that the state must provide an annual allowance for uniform replacement.
  • University of California. The Regents of the University of Cali-fornia have constitutional powers to manage their own internal affairs, which include determining employee compensation and benefits.

Private Employer Obligations

As this new decision shows, public sector employers are not on the hook for all costs associated with employee uniforms. However, the law in California does require private employers to pay for a required uniform and costs of maintenance.

The definition of "uniform" is quite broad, encompassing apparel or accessories that are distinctive in design or color and that are not "generally usable" in an occupation. For example, an employer wouldn't have to pay for a nurse's white uniform because nurses could probably wear the same item of clothing wherever they worked. But if a housekeeper is required to wear a nurse-type white uniform, the employer would have to pay for it. That's because the housekeeper wouldn't be expected to generally wear that uniform at other jobs.

Also, note that you can insist that basic wardrobe items be worn at work, such as black pants, black shoes, and a white shirt, without being forced to pay for them. But if you require a shirt with a specific design, such as a floral tropical shirt, you'd have to foot the bill.

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