Question: May I require my employees to wear a particular uniform?

California law allows employers to require employees to wear particular types of clothing or uniforms to work. If an employer requires non-exempt employees to wear a uniform, the employer must pay for and maintain it for the employee. What constitutes a "uniform" is not always clear.

According to the California Labor Commissioner, the term "uniform" includes any apparel and/or accessories of distinctive design or color. An employer may prescribe the weight, color, quality, texture, style, form, and make of a "uniform" required to be worn by employees. When an employer simply requires employees to wear "basic wardrobe items which are usual and generally usable in the occupation," the clothing is not a uniform. For example, specifying that employees wear white shirts, dark pants, and black shoes and belts, all of unspecified design, does not constitute a "uniform." The employer is not required to pay for that clothing or its maintenance. If the required clothing can double as street clothes, it is probably not a "uniform."

Some safety equipment or protective apparel must be worn by employees as a matter of law. Proper safety equipment such as goggles, gloves or other accessories or apparel must always be provided by the employer if they are required by a regulation of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

How is maintenance of a uniform handled?

In addition to the cost of the uniform, the employer must provide non-exempt employees with reasonable maintenance of the uniforms. The employee can either maintain the uniform itself, or pay the employee a weekly maintenance allowance of an hour’s pay at minimum wage, provided that an hour’s pay is a reasonable estimate of the time necessary to maintain uniform properly. It is reasonable to require employees to maintain uniforms requiring minimal care, such as washing and tumble drying, without reimbursement; however, special care, such as ironing, dry cleaning or separate laundering because of heavy soiling or special color, must be reimbursed to non-exempt employees.  Click here to read a Department of Labor opinion letter about when employers should bear the costs to maintain uniforms under the FLSA.  California’s DLSE also has an opinion letter on the topic, which is very similar to the DOL’s opinion. 

Employers need to remember that they can never impose a financial burden on employees, with respect to purchasing or maintaining clothing that reduces the employees’ wage rate below the minimum wage.

Other Concerns:

Employers must also be careful to pay employees for all time worked.  If putting on a uniform (or other equipment) takes a long time, it could be considered time worked, and therefore must be paid.  For more information, a DLSE opinion letters can be read here, here, and here