THE BLOG
09/12/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Walmart's Dress Code and the Cost of Low-Wage Work

When I began my job scooping ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins in my teens, I wasn't issued a uniform. I wasn't told to go buy brown pants or a brown shirt. Instead, I was directed to a couple of hooks at the back of the shop on which hung a couple of pair of polyester brown pants and a brown shirt with a collar and a company logo. Trying not to worry about how recently they'd been washed or what might have been excreted in those clothes by their previous wearers, I pulled them on and got to work.

This week, we learned that Walmart is making a change to their clothing policies for their employees. Each employee will be required to wear khaki or black bottoms and navy or white shirts with collars. The requisite Walmart vest would be supplied by the company.

When Walmart makes a move like this, we hear about it. They're big. Their reputation for paying less than a living wage abounds. In reality, though, Walmart is late to the party. For decades, low-wage employers have been requiring their staff members to bear the cost of required clothing.

Al was offered a job as a waiter in Chicago, but needed black pants, shirt and shoes and a black dress jacket each day at his new job. Ms. Kat was ready to start her job with a catering company in DC, but needed the required full tuxedo. Roberto's job in California required him to wear khaki pants and green polo shirts, not to mention waterproof work boots. Roberto was homeless.

The placement of cost burden on a new employee is a long-standing practice among employers who attract those with no choice but to accept low-wage work.

It applies not only to clothing, as we're discussing here, but to tools for mechanics, welders and dental hygienists, steel toed boots for those in the building trades, and even cars and trucks for broadband and cable installers and the like.

So, when we read about Walmart and commiserate with the railing against undue cost burdens placed on their workers this week, in fairness, we have to look at companies big and small across this country. We have to look at ourselves, our spending and price preference habits, at our presumptions about what it takes to get and keep a job at less than a living wage in this country.

While we absolutely need to pressure employers and wage-setters to address the realities that low-wage work is not sufficient to support subsistence in this country, we can also extend a hand to someone who just needs that small bit of help to get or keep his or her job.

James is trained as a solar installer but needs tools to accept a job in his new field.

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Ms. Mitchell needs to renew her food service and safety certification to work as a restaurant manager.

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Loredana is getting trained as a welder, but no employer will consider her until she's got her own safety gear.

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It goes on and on. Tools, uniforms, transportation. Getting and keeping low-wage work in this country is expensive.