Tools are an essential part of the workplace. Employees must have them in order to do their jobs. But are there federal and state laws that affect tools in your workplace. If your employment policies don’t comply with these laws, you could be incurring wage and hour liability. The following are five things plant operators should focus on as the New Year begins.

1. Specialty boots

What type of boots do you require your employees to wear? If they wear non-specialty, safety-toe footwear, such as steel-toed boots, and you allow the employees to wear the boots home, you can require employees to provide their own boots. If you require employees to wear some sort of specialty boots – such as rubber sole (non-skid) boots – you either need to provide those boots or give your employees a boot allowance to purchase their own.

2. Necessary tools

Where is your business located? Some states, notably California, require employers to provide their employees with all of their necessary tools (knives, steels, gloves, etc.). Be sure to check your state laws and consult with your labor counsel about whether you are obligated to provide your employees with their tools.

3. Knife sharpening

The law is that an employee sharpening their work knife is “working” and needs to be paid for that time – even if they do the work at home. This means that you either need to pay employees for “work” they are doing at home or you need to have a policy in place that prohibits them from sharpening their knives while at home. We recommend the latter. Some employers have gone further and utilize a professional knife-sharpening service that sharpens knives for the employees after the completion of their shift.

4. Written authorization

You deduct a lot of things from your employees’ paychecks. For example, you probably deduct the employee’s portion of health-insurance premiums, the cost of uniforms or even the cost of tools from employees’ wages. While this is allowed, several states have specific laws that must be followed. The most common limitation on employee deductions is the employer must first obtain written authorization from the employee before making the deduction. Check your state laws and consult with your labor counsel about any legal hoops you must jump through regarding paycheck deductions.

5. Deduction dilemma

Sometimes deductions can add up, especially if an employee is paying to replace several different tools or pieces of equipment. Keep in mind that while you can make deductions, those deductions should never push an employee’s wages below the minimum wage. This is a common problem for employees who make only slightly more than minimum wage. If a substantial deduction is necessary, consider breaking up the deduction over several pay periods to ensure an employee’s wages never fall below the minimum wage, something prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Richard Alaniz is senior partner at Alaniz and Schraeder, a national labor and employment firm based in Houston.