Last month, Walmart employees were informed that the company is instituting a new dress code, requiring them to ditch their plain blue shirts for collared ones at their own expense. The company will provide new vests.
At first glance, making Walmart workers pay for their work outfits seems illegal. Under federal labor law, employers can’t make their workers buy uniforms with their own money if doing so would drop their wages below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Given that reports put sales workers’ pay at about $8.80 an hour, paying for new clothes out of that figure would likely bring their wages too low. (The company claims full-time workers make $12.78 an hour.)
But, under the language used by the company, the new clothes aren’t “uniforms.” Instead, they’re part of a new “dress code.”
As Reuel Schiller, a law professor at UC Hastings, told NPR’s Marketplace, “There’s a legal difference between a uniform and a dress code.” Walmart skirts the regulation about uniforms and is able to pass the cost on to workers by calling it a dress code rather than a uniform. It also gets around it by making employees buy clothes that they could conceivably wear elsewhere, not ones branded with a logo, for which it would otherwise be legally required to pay.
The new costs have disgruntled some employees, although a spokesperson told Marketplace that most of the feedback about the dress code has been positive. Some took to an internal website to complain about it: “Now more money which I like many others just don’t have to buy clothes and a hot vest,” one person wrote. Another said of the new clothes that they are “too expensive too hot/cold,” adding, “every few months you guys dream up something new to torture the associates with… let us just get on with our work.” Another explained that the dress code isn’t affordable, adding, “I have a sick husband and am the sole bread and bring home the bacon winner.”
And yet another wrote, “With all due respect to the company, this is more of a financial burden to our family since this is our only source of income with my wife and two kids. We can hardly afford to live on my income now with us having to pay for a new uniform (aside from the vest).”
Richard Reynoso, another worker who is part of the OUR Walmart campaign that has staged strikes in favor of a higher wage and the right to form a union, went further by sending a letter to corporate headquarters saying he couldn’t afford to comply with the dress code. “The sad truth is that I do not have $50 laying around the house to spend on new uniform clothes just because Walmart suddenly decided to change its policy,” he wrote in the letter. “If I have to go out of pocket for these new clothes, I’m going to have to choose which bill to skip.”
The company itself has admitted that the majority of its workforce makes less than $25,000 a year. Striking workers have demanded that all pay be raised to that level, more full-time positions be added for those who want them, and that the company end retaliation against strikers. The company could afford to give workers that kind of a raise simply with the money it uses on buying back its own stock. But even if it passed the cost of a raise on to customers, prices would rise by mere pennies if all workers made enough to stay above the poverty line and the price of a typical DVD would rise by one cent if all workers made at least $10.10 an hour.