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Should you pay for employee uniforms?

restaurant uniforms illustration

Question:

My workplace requires us to wear black pants, non-slip shoes, black socks and an undershirt, as well as a chef coat and bistro apron with our logo on it. I have no problem paying for the pants, socks, undershirt and shoes because I can use those for street clothes as well. The chef coat and apron I don’t feel like I should pay for, because I cannot wear those outside of work. It is getting expensive because it is $10 per coat and $10 per apron. Is it legal to make us pay for the chef coat and apron?

– Server, Huntersville, N.C.

Answer:

This is another policy where best practices in the industry may not be consistent with what is possible or legal. While state laws may vary, the federal standard under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as explained in the fact sheet reads:

“The FLSA does not require that employees wear uniforms. However, if the wearing of a uniform is required by some other law, the nature of a business, or by an employer, the cost and maintenance of the uniform is considered to be a business expense of the employer. If the employer requires the employee to bear the cost, it may not reduce the employee's wage below the minimum wage…Nor may that cost cut into overtime compensation required by the Act.”

So the bottom line is yes, your employer can require that you bear the cost of the uniforms, provided that doing so does not reduce your hourly pay below minimum wage.

That said, many employers find that practice burdensome to the employee, so they often bear some or all parts of the uniform expense. Practices range from providing 100% of uniforms and laundering to providing discounts, sharing the cost of the uniforms, requiring a deposit or providing a uniform allowance.  Putting the burden of providing uniforms on employees creates additional challenges—some will be tempted to cut corners by buying fewer than needed or re-wearing without laundering, introducing appearance and sanitation problems. My advice to operators is to consider uniforms as a business expense to the extent possible and avoid passing on the costs of the core uniform to the employee. If employees want extra uniforms or frequently damage them and need to replace them, then consider a fee.

As always, local regulations vary so check with your restaurant association and attorney to make sure your policy is compliant. More on uniform policies here

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