Uniforms & the FLSA

By Kathryn O'Connor, PHR, SHRM-CP, CCP, GRP, Director, Compensation Services
Published May 15, 2018

Two large Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) settlements have recently cast light on the laws and regulations concerning uniform requirements. In one case, Disney agreed to pay $3.8 million in back wages to 16,339 employees, in part because deductions for the costs of uniforms and costumes worn during work caused their hourly pay to fall below minimum wage. In the other case, Life Time Fitness agreed to pay nearly $1 million to 15,900 employees for the same situation (because the uniform costs dropped their hourly pay below minimum wage).

uniforms at work

In light of these two cases, this is a good time to review the rules and regulations that apply to uniforms.

The Law
If a uniform is required by law, the employer, or due to the nature of the job, the uniform is considered a benefit of the employer. Therefore, the employer must either pay for the uniform and uniform maintenance (laundering, uniform replacement, etc.) directly, or, if the employer requires the employee to bear the cost, these costs cannot reduce the employee’s pay below minimum wage.

What is considered a “uniform”?
Unfortunately, the Department of Labor does not provide distinct rules on what constitutes a uniform. However, the DOL does provide some basic guidelines.

  • If an employer merely prescribes a general type of ordinary basic street clothing to be worn while working and permits variations in details of the clothes to be worn, the clothing items will not be considered a uniform. For example, ordinary shirts and/or pants of a standard style (a white button-down shirt, black or khaki pants, solid colored shirts) would fall in this category.
  • If the employer prescribes a specific type and style of clothing to be worn at work, such clothing would be considered a uniform. For example, if the employee is required to wear a tuxedo or blazer of a specific or distinctive style, color, and/or quality, that’s a uniform. Furthermore, if the employer requires an employee to wear items that bear the employer’s logo, like a polo shirt, jacket, or hat, that would be considered a uniform. 

Compliance Options
Employers that pay their employees at or near minimum wage have the highest risk when it comes to improperly deducting for uniforms.  

These employers should consider one or more of the following:

  • Providing the uniforms to employees free of charge. 
  • Providing laundering of the uniform items free of charge.
  • Providing a set amount of daily or weekly pay (aside from the employee’s regular pay) to cover any uniform purchases and/or uniform maintenance required.

What about replacement or extra uniforms?
As for replacement uniforms, the same rules apply. The employer typically would pay for these items. If the cost is passed to the employee, the costs of any replacement items cannot cause the employee’s pay to drop below the minimum wage. These rules apply, even if the uniform needs to be replaced due to the fault of the employee.
In some situations, however, the employer may have already provided the employee with sufficient uniform items, but the employee requests to have additional items for their own desire or convenience. In these cases, the employer is not responsible for paying for those additional items. It would be the employee’s choice to purchase those additional items and the employer is not responsible for factoring those purchases into a minimum wage analysis. 

Management Association members should contact the HR Hotline at 800-448-4584 or hotline@hrsource.org

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