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AT&T can stop workers from wearing 'Inmate' shirts, court says

AT&T can prohibit employees from wearing shirts that read “Inmate” on the front because it might hurt the company’s relationship with customers, a federal court said Friday.

The decision reverses a 2-1 National Labor Relations Board ruling in favor of the workers.

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The case concerns shirts that were given to employees of AT&T Connecticut by their union during a contentious contract dispute. They said “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back with “several vertical stripes above and below the lettering," according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

AT&T told workers who were interacting with customers to stop wearing the shirts, and suspended those who did not comply for one day.

It’s illegal for a company to stop their employees from wearing union apparel — but an exception exists when the clothing could hurt the company’s relationship with its customers.

The NLRB ruled that the shirts could not reasonably be mistaken for prison garb and thus were unlikely to hurt AT&T’s relationship with its customers. On Friday, the court reversed that decision.

“AT&T Connecticut banned employees who interact with customers or work in public — including employees who enter customers’ homes — from wearing union shirts that said ‘Inmate’ on the front and ‘Prisoner of AT$T’ on the back,” wrote Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his opinion.

“Seems reasonable. No company, at least one that is interested in keeping its customers, presumably wants its employees walking into people’s homes wearing shirts that say ‘Inmate’ and ‘Prisoner.’ ”

The court also disagreed with the idea that AT&T’s prior action with regard to inappropriate apparel was relevant to the case because of the nature of the union’s shirts.

“Citing our decision in Guard Publishing, the Board suggests that AT&T did not enforce its ban on unprofessional clothing in an evenhanded way, allowing other questionable shirts to be worn while banning the ‘Inmate/Prisoner’ shirt,” Kavanaugh wrote. “But the other shirts were not nearly as problematic as the one at issue here, or at least a reasonable employer could so conclude.”

The company hailed the decision in a statement.

“We’re pleased with Court’s common sense approval of our apparel policies,” said AT&T spokesman Marty Richter. “While we respect our employees' right to express their opinions, it is our policy to require appropriate dress for employees in customer-facing positions.”