Can my employer deduct the cost of my lost uniform from my paycheck?

Question:

I work as a barista at a café in California. When I first started work, I was given two polo shirts with the company’s logo on them. I have to wear the polo shirt to each shift. After a recent trip to the laundry mat, I noticed that one of my polo shirts was missing. When I asked my boss for another shirt, he said that the cost would come out of my paycheck. I only get paid $9 per hour and get no tips. But the shirt costs $40, which means that more than four hours of work will go towards paying for the replacement! Can my employer do this?

Answer:

No, your employer cannot charge you for the cost of replacing the uniform. In California, employers must pay for the cost of uniforms: distinctive clothing or accessories that employees are required to wear for the job. Because a polo shirt bearing the company logo would certainly qualify as a uniform, your employer must pay for the cost.

It sounds like your employer paid for the cost of the original polo shirts, but is now asking you to pay to replace the uniform that you lost. While this is a slightly different question, it is probably equally illegal for your employer to pass the replacement cost on to you. In most circumstances, California employers cannot charge employees for the cost of lost or damaged property. Loss or damage to company property, even by the carelessness of employees, is considered to be a cost of doing business. As a result, employers can deduct for such costs only when it is clear that the employee intentionally damaged or lost property or acted in a grossly negligent manner (more than ordinary carelessness).

In your case, you lost your uniform because of an everyday mix-up at the laundry mat. Because these are the kind of mistakes that are expected in the course of business, your employer must absorb the cost of the replacement uniform.

Even though you’re squarely protected by California law, you would probably be protected under federal law as well. Under federal law, employers can deduct the cost of lost uniforms from employee paychecks, but only if it does not cause their wages to fall below minimum wage. In your case, because you make only minimum wage, your employer has no leeway to deduct the cost of the uniform from your paycheck.

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