New York City Adopts Final Rule on Hairstyle Discrimination in Employment

Discrimination in employment on the basis of race or religion violates every anti-discrimination statute in the country. These are among the practices that brought on the passage of the first such laws decades ago. Despite a great deal of progress, much work remains to be done. As New York City employment discrimination attorneys, we have seen many ways that employers have subjected workers to adverse treatment because of race or religion while making it seem like it has nothing to do with either. Whether this is intentional on employers’ part is not nearly as important as the impact it has on workers throughout the city and country. Hairstyle discrimination is a major area of ongoing race or religious discrimination that might not look like race or religious discrimination to many people. New York City issued guidance on this issue in 2019. The New York State Legislature included it in the state’s anti-discrimination law the same year. In early 2021, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) issued a final rule formalizing a ban on hairstyle discrimination.

The CHR issued guidance on hairstyle discrimination in February 2019. It interpreted the prohibitions on race and religious discrimination in the New York City Human Rights Law to protect workers’ right to “hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.” It noted that, for Black workers, employers’ policies on grooming and appearance can exclude their natural hair. Many Black workers have had to obtain expensive and damaging hair treatments simply to comply with their employer’s policies. It further noted that some communities “have a religious or cultural connection with uncut hair.”

While the CHR’s guidance document only expressed the agency’s interpretation of city law, state lawmakers made some of these protections explicit in the New York State Human Rights Law later in 2019. A bill signed by the governor that July added two new definitions to the statute. The term “race” now includes “traits historically associated with race,” with specific reference to “hair texture and protective hairstyles.” N.Y. Exec. L. § 292(37). “Protective hairstyles” includes “braids, locks, and twists.” Id. at § 292(38). The CHR’s guidance included additional examples, such as “cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, [and] fades.”

As of January 31, 2021, most of the CHR’s guidance from two years ago is part of the agency’s official rules. The new rule prohibits “disparate treatment based on race [or religion] with respect to hair textures, hairstyles or hair length,” and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees. 47 RCNY § 2-08. It offers examples of prohibited conduct, including:
– Requiring a Black employee to straighten their hair in order to obtain a promotion or other benefit;
– Keeping a Black employee from a customer-facing job unless they change their hairstyle;
– Requiring a Native American employee to cut their hair, when long hair is part of their cultural identity;
– Discriminating against an employee who wears a head covering, “such as a turban, hijab, or yarmulke,” as part of their religious practices; and
– Requiring an employee to shave when their facial hair is a component of their religious beliefs or cultural identity.

The employment discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of New York City workers in claims of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and other factors. Please contact us today online or at (866) 229-9441 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

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