Following New York City, California and New York have become the first two states to protect employees from discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles traditionally associated with a particular race. New Jersey has proposed a similar amendment to its state law against race discrimination. All of these measures are concerned with the possible stigma associated with non-European hairstyles, including cornrows, Afros, locks, twists and braids. These new laws ensure that discrimination on this basis is unlawful.
California's CROWN Act
The California measure, known as the CROWN Act, is an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair." The CROWN Act expands the definition of race in California's anti-discrimination law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, to include "traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles." The law defines "protective hairstyles" to include "braids, locks, and twists."
This measure passed unanimously in both the California Assembly and Senate. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 188 on July 3, 2019, and it goes into effect on January 1, 2020. This new law applies to public employers and private employers with five or more employees and also applies to public schools, but excludes religious and nonprofit organizations.
New York's New Laws
On July 12, 2019, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law amendments to the New York State Human Rights Law and New York Education Law defining "race" as including "traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles." The amendments further defines "protective hairstyles" as "includ[ing], but not limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists." The bill was effective immediately on July 12, 2019. While the new amendments do not contain much detail, state employers can look to the New York City guidance for extensive examples on what are likely considered permissible and impermissible conduct and policies.
In light of these recent legal developments, employers should review their dress and grooming policies for any requirements that may have a disparate impact on employees who belong to protected classes. In particular, these policies should not prohibit hairstyles associated with any particular race, such as Afros, cornrows, dreadlocks, etc. If there is a health or safety concern associated with a particular hairstyle, employers should consider alternative protective measures, such as hairnets.
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