An organization does not have an obligation to provide employees with an area to store personal property and may even forbid employees from bringing personal property onto the company premises. However, if an area is provided, company handbooks should spell out the organization's refusal to assume liability.
Question: Are businesses required to supply a locked area for employees' personal belongings during work hours? (i.e., a place for a woman to lock her purse so it won't be stolen while she's away from her desk?)
Answer: The short answer to this question is "No." Neither legislatures nor courts at the federal or state level recognize an obligation for an employer to provide a locked area for employees to store personal belongings during work hours.
In fact, employers may expressly prohibit employees from bringing personal property into the workplace. See, e.g., Linblad v. Boeing, 31 P.3d 1 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001) (finding no disability discrimination where employer instructed employees to keep all personal belongings in their vehicles).
Of course, even in the absence of laws compelling certain conduct, employers and employees are relatively free to enter contracts to govern the terms and conditions of their employment relationship. Foley v. Interactive Data Corp., 765 P. 2d 373, 384 (Cal. 1988) ("We begin by acknowledging the fundamental principle of freedom of contract: employer and employee are free to agree to a contract terminable at will or subject to limitations. Their agreement will be enforced so long as it does not violate legal strictures external to the contract . ...").
Accordingly, an employer may, through express or implied contract, create an obligation to provide a secure location for employees to store personal belongings during work hours.
It is important to know, however, that the assumption of that obligation, without more, may generate employer responsibility to preserve the security of the personal items stored.
For that reason, employers may want to amend their handbooks to state unequivocally the employer's policy toward personal property in the workplace, and the scope of the obligations the employer will assume for employees' personal property at work.
Below is some sample language:
"For their own convenience, employees may bring personal property to the XYZ Co. workplace. However, XYZ Co. does not assume and specifically disclaims responsibility for any personal property located on its premises, or which accompanies or is carried, worn, or otherwise used by employees during the course of their work for XYZ Co. Employees who choose to bring personal property with them to work do so at their own discretion, and at their own risk."
Of course, having the ability to keep personal belongings in close proximity in the workplace has become a basic employee expectation. Therefore, limitations on that right should be imposed only when necessary if your company wants to be competitive in attracting applicants.
That said, if liability for personal property is an issue, having a policy similar to the sample above, will help go a long way to protect the organization.
Keisha-Ann G. Gray is senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department of Proskauer in New York and co-chair of the Department's Employment Litigation and Arbitration Practice Group.