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In many states (including California, Nevada, and New York), if an employer requires uniforms, it is responsible for the “maintenance” (i.e., washing and upkeep) of the uniform (in addition to the cost of the uniform itself) when the uniform requires ironing, dry cleaning or another special cleaning process. If the uniform requires minimal care (wash and tumble, or drip drying), then the employer is not obligated to pay for maintenance.

Uniform maintenance has been the subject of recent class action claims. For instance, Starbucks faced a lawsuit in California over the aprons employees are required to wear. The company provided the aprons, and the employee manual stated that employees were responsible for laundering and maintaining their aprons. The employees alleged the aprons had to be dry-cleaned and sought reimbursement from the company for the cost of doing so. Starbucks presented evidence that the aprons were machine washable and could be tumble-dried. The court held that the aprons did not require special care, and ruled in favor of Starbucks.

In general, restaurants should follow these guidelines:

1. To help avoid confusion and minimize the risk of employee claims that they are required to buy uniforms, and/or are required to specially launder their uniforms, employers should have clear, written policies. If a “uniform” is required, state in the written policy that the employer will provide the uniforms, and that employees are not required to purchase additional uniforms. The employer should issue sufficient uniforms to the employee to cover reasonable use for a work week. The policy should be monitored and enforced.

2. If an employer’s policy encourages, but does not require, wearing company-branded attire, indicate this clearly in the written policy. Managers should be instructed never to require or coerce employees to buy the employer’s brand. Similarly, employers’ policies should address whether uniforms require special laundering. If they require special laundering, the policy should state that the employer is responsible for the expense. If they do not require special laundering, and are instead “wash and wear,” the policy should clearly state that employees are not required to dry clean their uniforms, and managers should be instructed to follow the policy.

Bob Zaletel (rzaletel@littler.com) is a shareholder and Jessica Rothenberg (jrothenberg@littler.com) is an associate at the law firm of Littler Mendelson, P.C., in San Francisco. This is general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion.