California HR

Employee Uniforms: Court Says Public Employees Must Pay for Their Own Uniforms; A Look at the Rules for All Employers

Several employee groups—firefighters, sheriffs, police officers, guards, and forest rangers—filed class action suits against their public-sector employers in California, charging that they weren’t fully compensated for the costs of purchasing, replacing, cleaning, and maintaining required work uniforms, in violation of Labor Code Section 2802. This provision requires an employer to reimburse employees for all necessary expenditures or losses they incur as a consequence of performing their job duties.

But now a California appeals court has thrown out the lawsuits, ruling that public-sector employers are generally off the hook when it comes to paying for their workers’ uniforms. We’ll review the case and explain the different rules for private employers.

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Governments Don’t Have to Pay

The court concluded that Section 2802 doesn’t require public entities to pay for the entire cost of purchasing and maintaining required work uniforms. But the court’s reasoning differed depending on the type of government entity involved:

  1. Local governments.
    City and county governments are not subject to Section 2802 because they have constitutional powers to manage their own affairs and set employee compensation. Compensation includes payment for uniform expenses, said the court, so setting payment for these expenses is within the local government’s discretion.
  2. State of California.
    The Government Code specifies that state employees are responsible for purchasing uniforms that are required for employment and that the state must only provide an annual allowance for uniform replacement.
  3. University of California.
    The Regents of the University of California has constitutional powers to manage its own internal affairs, which include determining employee compensation and benefits.

Rules for Private Employers
Although this case makes it clear that public-sector employers are not on the hook for all costs associated with employee uniforms, private employers in California are required to pay for a required uniform and costs of maintenance. The definition of “uniform” is quite broad, encompassing apparel or accessories that are distinctive in design or color and that are not “generally usable” in an occupation.