NLRB Affirms Right to Not Wear Work Uniforms as a Protest

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision in early 2020 regarding workers who choose not to wear their designated uniforms as a matter of protest. While the ruling is by no means earthshattering, it does clearly outline how employers can respond to out-of-uniform employees in some situations.

If your company employs union labor and requires uniforms, there are certain circumstances under which they could refuse to wear those uniforms with the expectation of no retaliation. However, the NLRB decision imposes some responsibilities on employees as well. It is somewhat confusing, so a thorough reading of the decision is in order if this issue affects your company.

Protesting Uniform Shortages

The case ruled on in March 2020 stems from a disagreement between Ohio Bell and some of its technicians. In 2019, the company began requiring some technicians to work 6-day weeks as opposed to the previous five. Techs were required to continue wearing their company branded uniforms while working on Saturdays.

A group of employees were concerned that a six-day week without additional uniform benefits would create a uniform shortage. They decided the best way to make their concerns known was to choose one particular day on which they would all come to work in street clothes. They initially chose a Saturday but then changed it to a Friday for maximum exposure.

Lower-level management consulted with their upper-level peers in regard to what to do about the employees. They were advised to tell the employees they were not allowed to work in street clothing. Some, who had brought official work uniforms with them, changed on the spot and got to work. Others had to go home to retrieve their uniforms.

Pay and Disciplinary Actions

Those employees who went home to retrieve their uniforms were not paid for that time. Moreover, they were issued verbal warnings for arriving to work late. It appears as though some of those who brought their uniforms with them were also given verbal warnings, though that is not clear.

The NLRB Ruling

The NLRB’s ruling was quite comprehensive. This post will not get into all the details, but there are a few key points. First, the Board determined that the workers were well within their rights to not wear their uniforms as a means of protest. They cited labor laws that give union workers the legal right to engage in organized protest for their mutual benefit.

Second, the Board determined that, because the workers were not refusing to work, their actions did not constitute either a full or partial strike. They were only refusing to wear uniforms, not do the work their employer required of them. Thus, the Board determined that Ohio Bell did not have a legal basis for reprimanding employees.

Uniforms Part of the Job

Ohio Bell contended that the company uniform was part of the job. In other words, they asserted that technicians could not properly do the work assigned to them in street clothes. This is not such an unusual argument, given the type of work such technicians do.

According to uniform rental pioneer Alsco, plenty of companies involved in industries that require potentially dangerous manual labor also require employees to wear workwear uniforms for their own safety. It could be contended that jeans and off-the-rack T-shirts present a safety hazard for the Ohio Bell technicians.

It is not clear whether Ohio Bell presented that argument. Whatever argument they did present fell on deaf ears. The NLRB determined that the company uniform is not necessary for technicians to do their jobs. Case closed.