I’m a server in an upscale restaurant in California and have always been required to wear a black suit to work. In the past, we could choose any suit that we wanted, as long as it was black and looked presentable. Recently, though, the restaurant has become more high profile, and our manager wants us to look the part. We now have to wear matching tailored suits of a certain designer brand, which will cost hundreds of dollars. They also have to be dry-cleaned every week. Can the restaurant make us pay for the new suits?
Most likely, no. In California, employers cannot require employees to pay for the cost of uniforms. A uniform is distinct clothing that your employer requires you to wear for your job and that you can’t reuse for another job or incorporate into your everyday wardrobe.
In general, a black suit could be a basic item in your closet that you could wear for other purposes, such as to a wedding or other formal event. Black suits are also commonly worn by wait staff in fancy restaurants, so you could probably wear the suit in a similar job. Back when your employer was letting you choose the suit, it may have been fine to let you bear the cost. In theory, you could wear a suit that you already owned, or you could pick up a suit on sale that you could wear to other events. But, the more restrictions your employer places on the suits, the more likely they will be considered uniforms.
The Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), the California agency that enforces wage and hour laws, has found that clothes of a certain design, color, texture, or style are more likely to be considered uniforms. In your case, your employer is telling you to buy a specific suit from a particular designer, leaving you no choice in the matter. The fact that the suit costs hundreds of dollars may also weigh in your favor. Your employer could probably accomplish a similar look by letting you wear suits from less expensive designers, but it wants to project a certain image to its fine dining customers. While your employer is free to make this decision, under these circumstances, it will probably have to pay for the cost.
In addition to paying for the suits, your employer will also have to pay for the cost of dry-cleaning. In California, when uniforms require special care other than regular washing, the employer must pay for the cost. Because your suits will need to be dry-cleaned every week, your employer will have to pick up the dry-cleaning costs as well.