S.F. Retail Worker Sues Chico's Over Sales-Floor Dress Policy

Upscale retailer Chico’s FAS Inc., a purveyor of casual and career women’s clothing, is the latest company to be sued for allegedly requiring its salespeople to buy and wear the company’s clothing line while working.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court on May 12. The lead plaintiff is Charissa Villanueva, a 22-year-old woman who said she had to spend $500 on Chico’s clothing while she worked at the company’s Stonestown Galleria store in San Francisco from October 2000 to April 2001.

“We’ve heard over and over again that this is a common practice,” said attorney Patrick Kitchin, who is representing Villanueva.

Villanueva, who is now working as a legal assistant, declined to be interviewed.

Chico’s FAS, a retailer catering to 30- to 45-year-old women, denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, the Fort Myers, Fla.–based company said no such uniform dress policy exists.

“Chico’s encourages but does not require its employees to wear Chico’s clothing,” the company said in the statement. “While many associates choose to wear Chico’s clothing at work, others do not. In order to help associates who wish to purchase Chico’s clothing, the company provides them with a generous discount on clothing and accessories.”

However, the company would not say what kind of discount it gives its employees.

Kitchin said his client was given a 30 percent discount to purchase clothing that she only wore while on the job at the San Francisco store.

“She never wore the clothes outside of the store,” Kitchin said, noting that even with a discount, much of the clothing cost at least $30 to $40 an item. “Many of Chico’s employees are young women who are 18 to 21 years old, and they say they wouldn’t wear this stuff outside of work because they hate it.”

Chico’s, with 409 women’s specialty stores across the country and at least 51 outlets in California, said it will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.

“This is legal extortion,” said Charles J. Kleman, Chico’s chief financial officer.

Chico’s is the latest specialtystore chain to be sued for requiring its employees to wear the company’s merchandise while working.

In February, Kitchin’s law office filed class-action lawsuits in San Francisco state and federal courts against Gap Inc., the San Francisco–based parent company of Old Navy and Banana Republic. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. of New Albany, Ohio, had a similar lawsuit filed against it in San Francisco Superior Court in February.

In September 2002, Kitchin filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco accusing Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. of requiring its store employees to buy clothing from the company as a condition of working there.

In that lawsuit, Toni Young, who had been a sales clerk at Polo’s Post Street store in San Francisco since 1997, said she spent more than $7,000 of her $22,000 annual salary to comply with rules that she buy the latest in Ralph Lauren’s lines to wear at work.

All three lawsuits are pending, but the companies being sued maintain they do not require their employees to buy and wear their products to work.

“I can’t make any comments about the lawsuit,” said Debbie Eliades, a spokeswoman for Gap. “But in terms of our dress policy, we have never required anyone to wear our clothing. But we do encourage employees to wear our brand, and we offer a generous discount. Employees can wear classic, casual clothing that is consistent with our brand’s image as long as the label is not visible.”

As brands have grown in importance over the years, many branded-apparel retailers strongly urge their employees to wear their products.

But the California Labor Code forbids companies from requiring employees to wear uniforms unless they are fully reimbursed for the cost.

Miles Locker, a state Labor Commission attorney in San Francisco, said that California law is clear on what constitutes a uniform.

“A required uniform is defined to mean any kind of clothing that has a specific design by a specific manufacturer or a specific color or pattern,” he said.

Several years ago, his office filed lawsuits against Blockbuster Inc. and Target Corp. for requiring their employees to wear uniforms. Blockbuster required its employees to wear blue shirts and khaki pants but did not reimburse them for the apparel, Locker said. Target required its employees to wear red and white garb. Both companies settled the lawsuits out of court.

“You are getting more and more companies trying to sell their own brand,” Locker said. “In the old days, you had more department stores that sold various types of merchandise. They would just tell their clerks to wear nice clothing. Now you’ve got this mentality that employers think their employees are living mannequins.”