HR Management & Compliance

Employee Uniforms: Fashion Giant Hit With Lawsuit Over Dress Requirements; What’s Permitted–And What’s Not

Current and former employees of Polo Ralph Lauren have filed suit in San Francisco against the fashion retailer. Their claim? That the employer violated state wage and hour rules by requiring them to spend thousands of dollars a year on the company’s clothing to wear on the job. The lawsuit is causing heads to turn as employers review their policies on employee uniforms. We’ll explain what this is about. And we’ll review when you can—and can’t—require workers to pay for their own work clothes.

Employees Required To Wear Polo Labels

Toni Young, a Polo sales associate who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the group, claims that the employer required her to spend more than $6,000 of her $22,000 salary on Polo purchases. Young concedes that Polo provided workers a 65% discount on its pricey clothing. But Young also contends the employer would inspect the clothing she wore to ensure it was from the Polo line.

Another employee claims that when she wore sandals to work one day, she was forced to change into a pair of Polo loafers—and the price of the new shoes was later deducted from her paycheck. Furthermore, the employee alleges that management received commissions based on employee purchases of Polo clothing and accessories, which she contends was essentially a required “uniform.”Polo denies the allegations that it requires employees to buy and wear its apparel as a condition of employment. This case is still in the initial stages, and we’ll keep you posted as it proceeds.

400+ pages of state-specific, easy-read reference materials at your fingertips—fully updated! Check out the Guide to Employment Law for California Employers and get up to speed on everything you need to know.

Workplace Dress Codes

While the Polo lawsuit is being sorted out, it’s important to keep in mind that strict state wage and hour rules regulate who pays for employee uniforms. Here are some guidelines to help you comply:


  • Employers pay for uniforms. You must pay for a uniform and the cost of maintaining it if you require employees to wear one.


  • Uniform returns. You can require the employee to return the uniform when employment terminates. If an employee doesn’t return a uniform, you can deduct the reasonable cost of the item—but not costs for wear and tear—from their final wages, provided you have received written authorization from the employee to do so. Alternatively, you can require a reasonable security deposit from the employee, but you have to issue the employee a receipt and follow other special rules. Also, note that it appears you can’t take a deduction or require a security deposit if you’re covered by Wage Order 16 (Certain On-Site Occupations In The Construction, Drilling, Logging And Mining Industries). For a sample uniform, equipment and tools return agreement.


  • Definition of uniform. Uniforms are apparel or accessories that are distinctive in design and color. The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has taken the stance that an item is a uniform if it isn’t “generally usable” in an occupation. For example, an employer wouldn’t have to pay for a nurse’s white uniform because nurses could probably wear the same item of clothing wherever they worked. But if a housekeeper is required to wear a nurse-type white uniform, the employer would have to pay for it. That’s because the housekeeper wouldn’t be expected to generally wear that uniform at other jobs.


  • Basic wardrobe requirements are OK. You can insist that basic wardrobe items be worn at work, such as black pants, black shoes and white shirts, without being forced to pay for them. But if you require a shirt with a specific design, such as a floral tropical shirt, you’d have to foot the bill.


  • Forced purchases are illegal. Under the California Labor Code, it’s illegal to require an employee to make a specific purchase from the employer or from a specific third party—which may apply to the Polo case. For example, if you require employees to wear black shoes or pants, it would be illegal to require workers to purchase them from you or from a certain store.


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