The Question of Uniforms in the Workplace | Aiman-Smith & Marcy
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The Question of Uniforms in the Workplace and Reimbursement Policies in CA

If you were asked to name a few chains, restaurants, or business that required their employees to wear uniforms, chances are several brands would come to mind. In various sectors, whether it be the hospitality industry or fast food chains, employees’ outfits identify them to clientele in need of assistance and serve advertising purposes. For example, one can easily imagine this unfortunate red-and-yellow waitressing ensemble that Caroline and Max on Two Broke Girls sport. Most of the time, the most extensive problems employees have with uniforms is being charged by the employer for a couple of ugly uniforms, such as the ones on the show.

Yet, employees in retail are being exploited far worse when it comes to uniforms, where the unofficial “uniform” is the store’s merchandise. Employees must repeatedly purchase expensive, on-trend clothing. When retail employees do not comply with these formal or informal policies, they face intimidation and lack of income.

The Revolution In Retail Uniform Policy

In retail, where company merchandise is supposed to be on-brand, the cost for employees becomes outlandish. Abercrombie & Fitch, a company once chided for forcing minority employees to hide in jobs like stocking the backroom rather than working the sales floor, has been a top offender in terms of enforcing a uniform policy. Recently, here at Aiman-Smith & Marcy we represented a class-action suit “from approximately 62,000 Abercrombie & Fitch current and former employees [and argued] that employees were forced to purchase Abercrombie merchandise in order to work at the store.”

At Abercrombie & Fitch, the employees had a handbook that said they were not technically forced to purchase the store’s products to work there. However, employees on a massive scale experienced pressure to not only wear Abercrombie garb, but to keep up with each catalog during the sales cycle. The employees had to follow the store’s look policy, which was a strict dress code in itself about how to basically wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothing. If employees were not in compliance with the look policy, they were sent home or had hours cut. This led the way for employees who did not buy the constantly updating clothing to have job insecurity and get sent home for not wearing new clothing.

The Legality Of Uniform Reimbursement (Or, Lack Thereof)

While there are some federal laws that shape the discourse around uniforms, these laws do not cover much beyond prohibiting discriminatory uniforms and providing uniforms that properly fit disabled adults. These guidelines reflect some of the structure pertaining to anti-discriminatory laws on the books. While these laws were groundbreaking and help protect workers, the rest of the states were left to further interpret and debate uniform reimbursement in state law.

The one bright point about federal law and uniforms is that if the deduction would make the worker’s pay minus the deduction fall below minimum wage, then the employer is required to pay for the uniform. Beyond that, it truly depends upon the state, with some states offering stricter policies about uniform reimbursement and others offering less. Luckily, California offers many protections for its working residents, such as the aforementioned Abercrombie & Fitch employees.

According to California’s Department of Human Relations team here, “If an employer requires that an employee wear a uniform, the employer must pay the cost of the uniform.” Based upon the state’s definition, a uniform entails “apparel and accessories of a distinctive design or color.” Therefore, Abercrombie was not following the letter or spirit of the law, when employees had to purchase garments at their own cost, and violated it continuously.

Here, at Aiman-Smith & Marcy, we handle employment law, consumer fraud, and class actions suits within the state of California. If you have questions or concerns about the misuse of uniforms in your workplace, please contact us today, or check out our blog for the latest issues in employment law. We can discuss your options and how to handles cases of employers exceeding their bounds.