US: California Employers Can’t Discriminate Based on Hair

US: California Employers Can’t Discriminate Based on Hair

California is the first US state to ban employers from discriminating against employees or applicants because of their hair texture and “protective" hairstyles like braids, locks, twists, cornrows and Afros. Senate Bill 188 (Ch. 58), signed into law July 3, protects “the right of Black Californians to choose to wear their hair in its natural form, without pressure to conform to Eurocentric norms,” according to the bill’s author, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles.

California Law

Effective Jan. 1, 2020, the new law amends existing anti-bias provisions of the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Education Code to prohibit employers and schools from:

  • Enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies that disproportionately impact persons of color
  • Discriminating against individuals based on traits associated with race, including hair texture or hairstyle

Employers can still make and enforce neutral and nondiscriminatory policies — such as a policy requiring employees to secure their hair for safety or hygienic reasons — that do not have a disparate impact on employees of a particular race.

Hairstyle Protections Elsewhere in US

New York City recently banned discrimination based on hair, while Washington, DC, and other cities prohibit discrimination based on personal or physical appearance, including hairstyles and beards. New Jersey and New York are considering similar legislation.

At least one appeals court has rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s stance that a workplace policy banning dreadlocks is racial discrimination barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (EEOC v. Catastrophe Mgt. Solutions, No. 14-13482 (11th Cir. Sept. 15, 2016)). However, some courts have agreed with EEOC’s position that some workplace grooming polices can have a racially disparate impact prohibited by Title VII. Workplace policies restricting hairstyles or beards may also run afoul of Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination.

Related Resources

Stephanie Rosseau
by Stephanie Rosseau

Principal, Mercer’s Law & Policy Group

Fiona Webster
by Fiona Webster

Principal, Mercer’s Law & Policy Group

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