New Jersey Legislature Considers Bill Addressing Hairstyle Discrimination in Employment

Race discrimination in employment can take many forms. Sometimes an employer commits an adverse act against an employee that is unambiguously based on that employee’s race, but it is usually that obvious. Employment policies that do not appear to be motivated by any sort of racial animus, can still have a substantially disproportionate impact on employees of certain races. Workplace dress codes and grooming standards, for example, can reinforce racial discrimination by placing undue burdens on people who identify as African American or Black. These policies often, without a clear business justification, prohibit Black employees from wearing their hair in certain common hairstyles, including natural hairstyles. New York City issued guidelines in early 2019 about hairstyle discrimination. The state legislatures in California and New York later enacted laws adding hairstyle discrimination to state law definitions of race discrimination. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature would make similar changes to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). If you are concerned that your hairstyle may be related to a dispute you are having at work, reach out to a New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer today.

Employment discrimination on the basis of race is prohibited under the NJLAD. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The statute does not currently provide a definition for “race.” It relies on common usage, but even in everyday conversation, the word “race” is fraught with subtext. Dictionary definitions like “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits” do not capture the full meaning of the term. New York City sought to address this lack of detail in its antidiscrimination law by focusing on hairstyle discrimination.

In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CHR) published guidelines on “race discrimination on the basis of hair.” It described this as “discrimination based on characteristics and cultural practices associated with being Black.” The term “Black,” as used by the CHR, includes people who identify as African or African American, as well as people with Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx heritage. Workplace dress codes and grooming standards “are often rooted in white standards of appearance,” the CHR stated, and contribute to perceptions “that Black hairstyles are unprofessional.” Many such policies do not allow Black employees to maintain natural hairstyles. This requires them to undergo treatments to straighten their hair that are both expensive and damaging.

The CHR’s guidance document stated the agency’s opinion that existing city law prohibits hairstyle discrimination as part of its prohibition on race discrimination. California and New York have taken this a step further, amending state antidiscrimination law to add express prohibitions on hairstyle discrimination. The New York bill, which the governor signed into law in July, adds a definition of “race” that includes “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” The term “protective hairstyles” includes “such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.” California’s bill contains similar provisions, and also became law in July.

New Jersey legislators introduced A5564/S3945 on June 13, 2019, before the New York and California bills became law. It is still pending in both chambers. The bill would amend the NJLAD to add definitions of “race” and “protective hairstyles” that are very similar to those now found in New York and California state law.

If you and an employer are involved in a race discrimination dispute in New Jersey or New York, the skilled and experienced employment discrimination lawyers at the Resnick Law Group are available to help you. Please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options.

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