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Rules Aim at Sprucin' Up; Workers Saying, 'Loosen Up'

San Bernardino County's new dress code has some employees concerned.

February 08, 2006|Ashley Powers and Michelle Keller | Times Staff Writers

The ban on sweat pants and come-hither high heels triggered minor grumbling among some San Bernardino County employees, but the decision to bar Levis, tattoos, and jewelry in facial piercings raised a ruckus that spilled into the Board of Supervisors' chambers Tuesday.

In a 4-0 vote, the board approved a dress and grooming policy for the county's nearly 17,000 employees, affecting occupations as different as animal control officer and reference librarian.

The dress code, which appears to be the most sweeping of any county in Southern California, outlaws a closet's worth of items now considered unseemly work wear, including overalls, sports team gear and shirts that bare bellybuttons. Tattoos that can't be covered by clothing must be covered by other means. Pierced ears and earrings for both sexes are allowed.

County department heads have the discretion to make exceptions -- allowing landfill workers to wear jeans, for example -- but officials from the largest employees union said the restrictions went too far.

"What I most dislike about the dress code is that it's being imposed by a group of people that are parochial in their views on fashion; they're very conventional in style and want to impose that on everybody," said Stephen Rusher, a mental-health clinician at county-run Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton and a union representative.

Board members backed the policy before the vote, though Chairman Bill Postmus admitted to fancying denim when in his district office. Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said tattoos offended him, but "I'm an old guy." And Supervisor Josie Gonzales chimed in: "I dress for the people I serve. When I'm at home and in my pajamas and slippers, I'm not a supervisor."

At Tuesday's meeting, employees who supported the policy marched to the lectern in suits, ties and skirts with pantyhose.

Postmus began the discussion wearing a jacket and button-down shirt before slipping into a back room and emerging with a multicolored tie.

Leaders from the San Bernardino Public Employees Assn. said they had won assurances from administrators that enforcement would be flexible. Casual Fridays, for one, would not be a casualty, and employees sent home without pay for dress-code violations could appeal to the human resources department.

"I think it's ridiculous that anyone feels this would compromise their integrity or personal choice," said Mark Uffer, the county's top administrator. "We're not trying to be a fashion gestapo or anything."

Still, union general manger Bob Blough called the policy a "broad-brush approach" to hemming in a few employees whose outfits raise eyebrows.

"This sounds pretty severe to a person working in the trenches on a midsummer day," he said.

Sharon Gilbert, an employment services specialist in Victorville, has winced at some questionable apparel during her seven years with the county: sweatpants, concert T-shirts -- and a woman last month who rolled into the office in flannel pajama pants.

But, she said, county administrators have "gone overboard."

Take Susanne Kulesa, who has a red rose tattoo on her left ankle and is dreading a summer trying to hide it.

"Now I'm restricted to not being able to wear skirts or dresses. I would have to wear very dark stockings, and for spring and summer -- especially in the Inland Empire -- that's just ridiculous," said Kulesa, a staff training instructor for the Department of Child Support Services.

Neighboring counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and San Diego, dictate dress by department.

Riverside County's Department of Mental Health, for example, forbids sunglasses, T-shirts that could offend a "reasonable person" and "obvious bralessness," according to its written policy.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca recently suggested that on-duty deputies shroud tattoos with long sleeves or bandages, a move that mirrored policies for the Los Angeles and San Diego police departments. It was met with some consternation from the rank and file, who countered that tattoos were no longer synonymous with shady characters.

Workplace experts found the breadth of San Bernardino County's dress code unusual, though not over the top. Younger workers, in particular, tend to blur the line between club and cubicle clothing, said Diana Saiki, an assistant professor of fashion merchandising at Indiana's Ball State University.

"People have lost the art of dressing," Saiki said.

"This generation has been raised where it is more acceptable to abide to a casual dress code."

She and other experts said dress restrictions could stem sexual harassment and allow employees to concentrate on their jobs -- not on a colleague's micro-mini or studded tongue.

In San Bernardino County, the dress dictum is part of a broader effort by top administrator Uffer to improve customer service.

At Tuesday's meeting, Uffer unveiled a plan that includes employee-training sessions and "mystery shoppers" who would evaluate the responsiveness of county workers.

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