Question:

We require our employees to wear simple wash and wear uniforms. We provide three uniforms to each full time employee, and require the employees to launder them. One of the employees has requested a “washing allowance,” stating that she prefers to dry clean her uniform. Do we have to pay her a washing allowance?

Answer:

The question of when an employer has to provide and maintain required uniforms is a source of some confusion. The California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders state, “when uniforms are required by the employer to be worn by the employee as a condition of employment, such uniforms shall be provided and maintained by the employer. The term ‘uniform’ includes wearing apparel and accessories of distinctive design or color.”

The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which enforces California labor laws, interprets this rule to mean that employers do not have to provide or pay for basic wardrobe items that are usual and generally usable in the employee’s occupation, such as white shirts, dark pants and black shoes and belts of unspecified design, because the employee can wear these clothing items in any job in his or her occupation. But, if a required black or white uniform or accessory does not meet the test of being generally usable in the occupation, the employee may not be required to pay for it. Ordinary work clothes are not uniforms when employees have a free choice about what to wear, but when an employer specifies the design or color, or requires an insignia, the employer does so for the employer’s own advantage as a matter of advertising, public image, or other business purpose, and employers must provide the distinctive uniforms. The employer must also provide accessories of distinctive color or design required by the employer, such as aprons, headbands, hats, cuffs, or boots.

For example, the DLSE has taken the position that uniform clothing of a particular design, like tropical shirts, would be so distinctive that the employer would be required to pay the cost of such clothing. In another case, the dress code imposed by Blockbuster, a blue shirt and tan or khaki pants, was determined to be a uniform that the employer was required to provide and pay for. An employer is free to designate the weight, color, quality, texture, style, form and make of uniforms required to be worn by employees. The employer may also designate the store where the uniform may be purchased, but it must pay the cost of the uniform when the uniform is distinctive in design or color.

Generally, the Industrial Welfare Commission deems it reasonable to require employees to maintain uniforms made of fabric requiring minimal time for care. However, employers must maintain or provide a maintenance allowance if the uniform requires ironing or dry cleaning, or if the uniforms require special laundering for heavy soil or color. The maintenance allowance must be based on a realistic estimate of the time required to wash and iron special care uniforms, and the time may be compensated at minimum wage. If uniforms require dry cleaning, the maintenance allowance shall be the actual cost of dry cleaning.

A recent case provides some guidance on the employer’s obligation to “maintain” the employee’s uniforms. In the case of O’Connor v. Starbucks, a Starbucks employee claimed that he had his apron dry cleaned, and that he should be reimbursed for the dry cleaning costs. The court determined the apron required minimal time for care, and could easily have been laundered with the employee’s other clothing. The court held there is no obligation to reimburse employees for the time they spend washing uniforms or having them laundered when they require only minimal care. Therefore, if your employees’ uniforms are “wash and wear” and can be laundered with the employees’ other laundry, your company probably does not have to reimburse the employee for the dry cleaning expenses.
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