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Should employees cover uniform costs?

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Question:

Dear Advice Guy,

Can a company force an employee to pay for a beard net, or is it the company’s responsibility to pay for it?

Tom, Cook, Einstein’s, South Bend, Indiana

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Answer:

Making sure employees are in proper uniform, including safety gear like hairnets and beard snoods, is important in running a safe and professional foodservice operation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does require paying for certain gear considered personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hard hats for construction workers. However, hairnets and gloves for foodservice workers are exempt from this requirement.

As you note, it is a cost of business that someone needs to take on—the employee, the employer or a combination. Many employers provide all uniforms and related materials. But practices and what is allowed by law vary widely from employees paying all costs, to employers being allowed to deduct costs, to employers needing to provide everything.

At the federal level, employers are allowed to deduct uniform expenses from wages (except for PPE), provided the costs do not reduce employee pay below minimum wage or cut into overtime. However, many states have stricter regulations. In your state of Indiana, “The deduction cannot exceed 5% of the employee's weekly earnings (with a cap of $2,500 per year).”

Our legal friends at Avvo compiled a handy state-by-state guide to who usually picks up the tab on what employees wear, from states like California and New York where employers have to provide uniforms if they require them, to many that follow the federal guidelines, meaning employees can bear the cost.

As often happens, part of the problem is lack of clarity on the part of the employer. If employers deduct for uniforms, employees should know the anticipated costs before they sign on and there shouldn’t be any surprises in the paycheck. My advice is that employees should have what they need to do their jobs well—including uniforms.

As always, state and local regulations vary, so check with your attorney and restaurant association before implementing a policy. More on uniform policies here.

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