Can my employer make me pay for uniforms?

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Question:

I work for a restaurant, and we have to wear a uniform. We have to wear a particular brand of black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a vest with the name of the restuarant on it. It isn't as bad as all the flair on Jennifer Aniston's suspenders in Office Space, but it still isn't anything I'd wear off the job. The restuarant provides the uniforms, but it deducted the original cost, and now the cost of cleaning and pressing, from our paychecks. Is this legal? 

Answer:

Thanks for bringing up one of our favorite movies! It's true, your uniform doesn't sound nearly as bad as the stripes, suspenders, and flair at Chotchke's. But that doesn't mean you have to love it. And, depending on your state's law, you might not have to pay for it, either. 

Generally, employers are free to require employees to dress in a particular way, including wearing a uniform, as long as those requirements aren't discriminatory or illegal. For example, California employers may not prohibit female employees from wearing pants. So, a uniform requirement that required dresses or skirts for female employees would be illegal. A uniform that is difficult for an employee with a disability to put on and take off may have to be modified for that employee's use. For example, an employer might use softer fabric to avoid uncomfortable bunching for an employee who uses a wheelchair, or replace buttons with velcro closures for an employee with limited manual dexterity. 

Some employers require a full uniform that clearly identifies the company; others go with more of a "dress code" approach. It sounds like your employer has taken a middle ground. This makes no difference under federal law, but may determine who pays for the uniform in your state. 

Federal law allows employers to deduct the cost of supplying and maintaining a uniform (having it mended or cleaned and pressed) from an employee's paycheck, as long as the employee's wages after the deduction don't fall below the minimum wage. If you earn only the minimum wage, your employer may not require you to pay for a uniform, through payroll deductions or otherwise. However, if you earn enough to cover the minimum wage and your uniform costs, your employer is free to take the deduction. 

Some states have taken a stricter approach. For example, some states prohibit employers from charging employees or requiring them to buy a uniform that has a company logo or otherwise can't be used as street wear. And, some states don't allow employers to charge employees for uniforms at all. In these states, an employer that wants to require a uniform must supply it to employees free. To find out your state's take on this issue, contact your state labor department. (Select your state from our Wage & Hour Laws page for contact information.)

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