Many of the same people who wear uniforms at work—doctors, nurses and other medical personnel including EMS and police, flight attendants, bus drivers and train conductors, fast food workers, grocery store clerks, and housekeeping personnel—are also the people most at risk for exposure to COVID-19 while on the job. Here’s what you should know about their concerns and how your organization’s work clothes policies and benefits can help them manage stress during these unprecedented times.
First, a brief refresher on federal policies concerning uniforms. Where routine job functions expose an employee to potential danger, OSHA mandates that the employer pay to outfit the employee in protective apparel. This includes the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) many at-risk frontline workers use to help guard against the COVID virus. But the regulations do not mandate that employers pay for basic uniforms. Police and EMS uniforms, personal scrubs or physician attire, and most shoes are generally purchased by the employee, with or without reimbursement from the employer. (Your state might have stricter regulations.)
The coronavirus has added a level of stress for people who purchase and maintain their own uniforms and work in public-facing occupations. Concerned they will come into contact with the virus on the job and inadvertently transmit it to the public or to their families and friends via infected clothing, many of these people are taking extra precautions, which include switching out and laundering or dry-cleaning uniforms more often than usual.
It’s important to note that, at this point, most medical experts believe transmission of the COVID-19 virus by clothing is a lesser threat than transmission by personal contact or by touching contaminated surfaces made of metal or plastic.1 Nevertheless, there’s still much we don’t know about this new disease; and even people knowledgeable about medicine and disease control are concerned about bringing it home on their clothes. One nurse reported she wears a set of scrubs to work, changes into a second set while on the job, and then changes back into the first set and wears them home, where she immediately removes and launders them.2 It’s probably safe to say that many EMS personnel, police officers, fast food workers, flight attendants, and others who encounter a greater-than-average threat of COVID-19 on the job are practicing similar routines.
For workers like these, the need to be extra scrupulous about their work clothes can mean buying extra uniforms and spending more time and money cleaning them following a shift. It’s one more factor that can contribute to stress and burnout.
One way to address this problem is by offering a work clothes account. It provides employees with reimbursement for items of clothing they wear while on the job (excluding items that can be worn in their off hours). In addition to clothing, these items can include hardhats, safety glasses, and safety shoes. The account can also pay for cleaning and repairing uniforms. Since this is an employer-funded and owned benefit, the employer can set the amount of the fund. Any funds left unused at the end of the year are returned to the employer. As long as the purchases meet the criteria laid out by the IRS, the benefit is exempt from taxes for both the employer and their employees.
Even without a pandemic, offering a work clothes benefit gives your employees an incentive for purchasing the right apparel for the job and maintaining a neat, clean appearance that reflects well on your organization. These days, it can do even more, showing your concern for the safety of the community and the families of your employees. It has the potential to pay far more in employee satisfaction and loyalty than it costs you in dollars.
Editor’s Note: TASC offers a Work Clothes Account as one of more than 50 benefit offerings that can be configured into custom plans that meet employee needs – where they are in life.
- “Can Clothes and Shoes Track COVID-19 into Your House? What to Know,” Healthline, April 2020: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/shoes-clothes-and-covid-19
- “How doctors can keep their families safe after providing COVID-19 care,” American Medical Association, April 2020: https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/physician-health/how-doctors-can-keep-their-families-safe-after-providing-covid