Jul 4

Tools: An Employee’s Nuts & Bolts Guide

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Let’s drill down on the topic of tools. In California, an employer must generally provide and maintain any necessary “tools and equipment.”1 The law makes two narrow exceptions under which an employer can require an employee to buy his own tools and equipment: (1) the “hand tool” exception; and (2) the “beauty salon” exception. Even if an exception doesn’t apply, however, an employer can require an employee to put up a cash bond in case the employee damages the tools or equipment or decides to take home a souvenir. Don’t let your employer screw you. Here’s a nuts and bolts guide to California’s tool laws.

When Must an Employee Buy His Own Tools?

The “hand tool” exception arises if: (1) the employee makes at least twice the minimum wage; (2) the tools are “hand tools and equipment”; (3) the employee’s trade or craft customarily requires them; and (4) the employee isn’t a regularly indentured apprentice.2 The exception is narrow. The word “hand” is an adjective that modifies both “tool” and “equipment.” Thus, an employee doesn’t have to bring his own desk to work. Similarly, the word “hand” indicates that the exception doesn’t cover power tools or equipment.3 Finally, the exception doesn’t apply to Cal/OSHA-required protective equipment or safety devices on tools.4

The “beauty salon” exception allows beauty salons, beauty schools that offer beauty care to the public for a fee, and barber shops to require their non-apprentice employees to buy their own manicure implements, curling irons, rollers, clips, scissors, combs, blowers, razors, and eyebrow tweezers, even if the employees make less than twice minimum wage.5 Like the “hand tool” exception, however, the “beauty salon” exception doesn’t apply to Cal/OSHA protective equipment or safety devices. Moreover, the list of beauty tools is exclusive, so it doesn’t include hand-held mirrors or make-up supplies.

When Must an Employee Pay for Employer-Provided Tools?

Even if an employer provides the tools and equipment, the employee must return all of the employer’s tools and equipment once the job is complete.6 Unfortunately, some employees return the items damaged or just take it home a souvenir. Consequently, California law authorizes an employer to: (1) require the employee to make a “reasonable deposit” as security for the return of the items upon the issuance of a receipt to the employee for the deposit; or (2) obtain the employee’s prior written authorization to a deduction from his last check for the cost of any item in the event that the employee doesn’t return it.7

The employer may require the employee to make a “reasonable deposit” as security for the return of the employer’s tools or equipment. But the law prohibits an employer from demanding, exacting, or accepting any cash bond for that purpose, unless: (1) the employer entrusts the employee or job applicant with tools and/or equipment of an “equivalent value”8; (2) the parties agree in an “accompanying” writing to the conditions under which the employee will put up the bond9; and (3) the employer holds the cash in a joint savings account in a bank authorized to do business in California.10

As trustee of the employee’s cash, the employer may not commingle funds or use the cash for any reason, except to liquidate the savings account.11 After the employee or applicant returns the tools and equipment and fulfills the agreement, the employer must immediately return the cash, plus interest.12 The employer may only deduct the amount necessary to balance accounts between him and the employee or applicant.13 But the employer may not deduct for “normal wear and tear” to his tools or equipment.14 Thus, a barber shop may not pocket a barber’s cash just because a tooth on one of the barber shop’s combs breaks off.


  1. Wage Orders 1, 3-15(9)(B). 

  2. Wage Orders 1, 3-15(9)(B). 

  3. IWC Statement as to the Basis of the 2000 Orders. 

  4. Wage Orders 1, 3-15 (9)(B), 16(8)(B). 

  5. Wage Order 2 (8)(B). 

  6. IWC Wage Orders 1, 3-15 (9)(C), 16 (8)(B); IWC Wage Order 2(8)(B). 

  7. Id

  8. Lab. Code §402(a). 

  9. Lab. Code §403. 

  10. Id

  11. Id

  12. Lab. Code §404(b). 

  13. Id

  14. IWC Wage Orders 1, 3-15 (9)(C), 16 (8)(B); IWC Wage Order 2(8)(B). 

Ben Rothman, Esq.

Ben Rothman is a Los Angeles-based attorney practicing in the areas of personal injury, employment, and workers’ compensation on a “no recovery, no fee” basis. Call him at (424) 465-2948 for a free, no-obligation consultation.