For Abercrombie & Fitch, 2003 was not a great year. The international retail giant had some very definite ideas about how their California employees should look—and dress—and some very definite penalties for employees who didn’t toe the line.
Female employees were permitted to have no more than two earrings per ear—male employees weren’t allowed to have any. Hair was another Abercrombie obsession—no “unnatural” hair colors or highlights allowed. They even checked out their employees’ nail polish—those colors also had to be “natural.” Clothes, per company policy, needed to be “clean and classic”—oh, one other thing—they had to be Abercrombie clothes.
That in itself wouldn’t have caused such a riff if the company hadn’t required their employees to pay for those clothes themselves—not once, but continually: every time a new sales guide was published, employees were required to buy new clothes consistent with the new look. Any employee who didn’t comply would be sent home and scheduled for less shifts—not a great deal for the employees, but nice for Abercrombie, as long as they could get away with it.
Abercrombie Pays the Piper
They couldn’t—their requirements were a violation of California labor law, section 2802. That law is clear and unambiguous, and appears—in black and white—on the state’s website:
“An employer shall 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.”
Translation: if an employer in California makes his employees wear a uniform, the employer has to pay for it. Abercrombie didn’t pay for the uniforms—so the state made them pay $2.2 million in reimbursements, and promise to make their uniform policy voluntary.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Promises made by corporate behemoths are like snowflakes in April—they don’t last very long. Even though they got caught, even though they were forced to pay more than $2 million to injured employees, and even though they promised never to do it again, they did. In 2015, more than 62,000 Abercrombie employees sued the company over its strict uniform policy—the same policy they had promised to change more than a decade earlier.
According to Reed Marcy, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, Abercrombie treated its employees wrongfully in two ways. First, it orchestrated a program of “compelled purchases,” in which workers who refused to buy the company’s clothes suffered penalties, a violation of California labor codes. Second, Abercrombie failed to reimburse employees for those purchases, which constitutes a separate state labor code violation.
Can Employers in California Require That Employees Wear Uniforms?
Employers in California can require their employees to dress in a particular way, or to wear a uniform, but those requirements can’t run afoul of the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. For example, employers can’t establish a uniform policy which requires women to wear dresses or skirts, or which requires disabled employees to wear uniforms which are difficult for them to put on or take off–and they can’t require employees to pay for the uniforms.
It’s More Than Just Uniforms
Under California labor law, the only items employers can require employees to pay are those required by state and federal law (such as income taxes); those authorized by the employee to cover insurance, hospital or medical dues; and those authorized by collective bargaining to cover either health and welfare or pension payments. What they can’t require them to pay is the cost for uniforms or any of the following:
- Gratuities: although restaurant owners are permitted to have a policy which pools tips left for waiters and waitresses, they can’t take any part of those tips for themselves.
- Photographs: if for any reason an employer requires employees to produce a photograph, the employer is required to pay for it.
- Bonds: employers who require bonds for either applicants or employees must pay the cost of the bond.
- Business expenses: employers must pay any expenses which an employee incurs as a direct consequence of his work (for example, if a company requires employees to have mobile phones, they must pay for the mobile phones)
- Medical or physical examinations: employers who require applicants or employees to undergo physical examinations must pay for them, even if those examinations are required by state or federal law.
Some aspects of California labor law can be difficult for laypersons to navigate. If you feel your rights are being violated in the workplace, you need to contact an experienced employment attorney.
The attorneys at Aiman-Smith & Marcy have broad and deep expertise in both federal and California employment law and an unwavering commitment to helping victims of unjust labor practices. We will take your case seriously, work collaboratively with you, and devote the time and resources necessary to ensure your rights are protected. If you have specific questions or would like to discuss your case, contact us today.