Should employees have to pay for their uniforms? This is a debate that has been going on for more than two hundred years of worker-employer relationship. So it’s no surprise that the laws regarding employee uniform costs vary from state to state. Fortunately, California laws tend to favor the employee and protect workers from being exploited by the well-funded businesses that employ them.
If a California employer wants you to wear clothes that are not your own and couldn’t be worn elsewhere, they have to pay for it. However, this isn’t something all current professionals are aware of. There are still many businesses that trick their employees into paying for required uniform clothing even in states where this is strictly illegal. They do this to offset costs and to effectively pay workers less than their contractual hourly wages.
But they get away with it because their employees don’t know the law. Or, they think, no one will stand up for themselves for fear of losing their current job. Today, we’re here to help you clearly define if your employer is exploiting the staff by charging for uniforms or refusing to cover uniform costs.
The Difference Between a Uniform and a Dress Code
The biggest misunderstanding in uniform-related disputes is what qualifies as a uniform. Many workplaces seem to require a uniform but, legally, it’s just a very strict dress code. So what’s the difference?
A work uniform is primarily defined by what you can’t do wearing it.
- You could not wear the uniform to work at another job
- You could not reasonably wear the uniform as part of your social life
- The uniform has a company logo
- You are required to get the uniform from a specific supplier.
If any of these things are true, then what you are required to wear to work is officially a uniform. However, most workplaces skirt the uniform issue by simply requiring a very strict dress code. This includes, for example, a shirt of a specific color paired with black pants and shoes that are all your own. They may require that the shirt be of a specific style, opacity (not see-through), and sturdiness, but they can’t tell you where to buy your work clothes, what fabric they must be made of, or what you wear underneath.
Uniform Maintenance Costs
Interestingly, your employer is also required to cover the costs of maintaining your uniform. But only if the cost goes above and beyond normal clothing maintenance.
If your supplied uniform can be washed and dried normally with your other laundry, then legally there is not cost of maintenance. However, if your uniform requires any sort of special care, it’s likely your employer owes you the cost of upkeep. Having to iron your uniform, which takes time outside your clocked hours, is an example of uniform maintenance cost. As is having to wash your uniform separately for reasons of color sensitivity or excessive dirtiness. And, of course, having to dry-clean your uniform is an undeniable cost that should be covered.
Costs and Minimum Wage
Under certain circumstances, a California employer may ask a staff member to pay for uniform maintenance, but there is a special rule for workers at and near minimum wage. Your employer may never ask you to cover work-related costs that would bring your effective pay below the state minimum wage. This applies to all costs, not just the uniform, including vehicle usage and docked pay.
Exempt vs Non-Exempt
Finally, the rules to change slightly for officially “exempt” employees. Employers do not have to cover the costs of uniforms or uniform maintenance for exempt employees. Although employees in an exempt position are less likely to be exploited or, for that matter, required to wear a uniform.
If you’re not sure where you stand, it’s easy to find out. To be considered exempt in California, there are three requirements that all must be met:
- Earning a salary, not hourly wage
- In a white-collar position using independent judgment in daily activities
- Salary must be $43,680 a year or more ($45,760 in 2019)
If you don’t fit the bill for all three, you are not exempt and your employer is obligated to pay the cost of your uniform.
Is your employer requiring staff to pay uniform costs illegally? Whether they are asking you to pay them for provided uniforms, demanding you buy your clothes from the store, or simply not reimbursing you for costs, these are illegal actions. You can take a stand against employee exploitation both for yourself and all your colleagues in the same boat. Here at Aiman, Smith & Marcy, we specialize in helping employees seek justice from exploitative employers who think they can get away with anything. Don’t let them marginalize their costs into your paycheck. And don’t pay for a uniform you can’t wear or use anywhere else. For more information or a consultation on your workplace situation, contact us today! We’re here to help.