Seyfarth Synopsis: In the popular PBS show Downton Abbey, a large staff attends to the every domestic need of the British Earl and his family. Those of us somewhat less fortunate have likely felt the additional household burdens associated with the SIP orders. And as California businesses re-open, companies and workers have yet another chore to attend: cleaning uniforms more often. We have tailored this post to examine some implications for employers.

Etiquette From A Bygone Era

Although we previously blogged on employer reimbursements for uniforms, tools, and equipment, the new realities of operating a business amidst heightened sanitation requirements make it time to suit up for a reexamination of the issues.

In general, the underlying rules regarding employer reimbursements for uniforms, tools, and equipment have not changed. Under California law, employers still must pay for or reimburse a non-exempt employee for all costs associated with uniforms, regardless of how much the employee earns. This law differs from federal law, which generally allows employers to pass those expenses off to employees so long as their pay does not drop below the minimum wage. Even in California, though, employers typically need not reimburse employees for time spent personally cleaning clothing if the cleaning requires minimal time or care and can fit within the employee’s typical laundry schedule.

The Nature Of Life Is Not Permanence, But Flux

COVID has brought a dramatic shift to our work hours and environments. Once upon a time, people shared clothing items—like aprons (or waistcoats!)—with the colleagues working before and after them. But person-to-person transmission of COVID has brought some sharing practices into question. Similarly, uniform clothing items such as vests or ties once were cleaned infrequently and yet now may require aggressive, regular cleaning to guard against COVID transmission.

For employees whose uniforms need special cleaning, California employers must provide and maintain the uniform without cost to the employee. Likewise, any uniforms that require ironing, dry cleaning, special laundering, or sewing and repairs because of the nature of employment must be maintained by the employer or covered by a uniform maintenance credit that pays for the time and costs incurred in maintaining it.

The World Is A Different Place From The Way It Was—Uniforms in the Time of COVID

Bringing this back to the present, what about uniform or work clothing items that, pre-COVID, would have required little to no maintenance or cleaning? If items like vests and aprons must now be cleaned after every shift—in excess of employees’ normal laundry habits—the new cleaning regimen may lead to claims that the employee should be reimbursed for the extra time or expenses involved.

But employers are not without options! One potential solution is to provide employees with multiples of required clothing items. Even if an employee must wear and clean a vest every day, having several on hand to rotate through family laundry cycles would reduce the burden of keeping them clean and sanitary. Another possible solution is for the employer itself to take responsibility for cleaning work garments, such as by enlisting a qualified laundering service.

Employers could also have employees wash uniform items at the worksite. But care must be taken with respect to washing soiled garments. For example, the CDC cautions against handling laundry from people who are infected, recommends wearing gloves, and warns that shaking laundry can release virus fomites into the air. Our Workplace Safety team is well-versed on the CDC’s guidance on ways to minimize the risk of virus transmission when handling clothing and other frequently handled workplace items.

It’s Not A Masquerade—What About Masks?

Currently, the CDC and others are advising employees to wear masks when performing work that puts them in contact with others. Indeed, some jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles, have required individuals to wear face masks at certain public places.

Assuming that the face masks worn by employees are generic—i.e., no company branding, logos, or special color—they likely are not a “uniform” under California law. Employers thus should not need to reimburse employees for time spent washing masks, especially if the amount of time spent cleaning masks does not significantly add to the employee’s laundry burden.

But this is California, so take care to minimize the time employees may feel required to devote to cleaning their masks. Again, providing multiple masks for employees to rotate through the workweek may help obviate any potential issue of required special cleaning.

Workplace Solutions

In our current new reality, frequent washing of often-used garments like vests and aprons may be advisable. But employees who lack a large staff of butlers, valets, and maids may feel additional burdens associated with this new requirement. Here, as with everything we do in the COVID-infused employment workplace, we must take care when implementing policies and procedures that keep both employees and the public safe while also complying with California’s often peculiar employment laws. As always, please reach out to Seyfarth with questions.

Edited by Coby Turner