New Jersey Passes Law Against Hairstyle Discrimination in the Workplace

New Jersey joined several other states in prohibiting hairstyle discrimination in late 2019 when the Legislature passed the “Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair Act,” also known as the CROWN Act. The new law adds a definition of “race” to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) that specifically includes hairstyles historically or traditionally associated with particular racial groups. Many workplaces maintain dress codes or grooming policies that, whether intentional or not, discriminate against Black workers, such as by placing an extra burden on them in terms of how they maintain their hair. New York City issued guidance about race discrimination based on hairstyles in early 2019, and versions of the CROWN Act became law in New York State and California in July. New Jersey race discrimination law thus served as a model for other states to follow.

The NJLAD bars employers from discriminating on the basis of race and multiple other factors. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). The statute identifies certain actions as discriminatory, including refusing to hire someone, firing someone or requiring them to retire, or barring them from consideration for employment based on a protected category. Discrimination in the “terms, conditions or privileges of employment” also violates the NJLAD. Id. This may include employment policies or practices that favor or disfavor one group over another, or that impose additional burdens on a group of employees without a reasonable business-related justification. These types of practices can violate laws like the NJLAD even in the absence of discriminatory intent.

New York City’s guidance on hairstyle discrimination, issued in February 2019, offers a useful overview of how it can violate antidiscrimination laws. The document describes various “hair textures [that] are common among people of African descent,” and discusses how people may choose particular hairstyles for “cultural,…personal, financial, medical, religious, or spiritual reasons.” It also describes “protective style[s], intended to maintain hair health.” Discriminatory workplace policies that prohibit many of these hairstyles are often based on “a widespread and fundamentally racist belief that [they] are not suited for formal settings.” Such policies usually derive from “white and European beauty standards.”

Many of these policies bar people of color from wearing their hair in a natural style, requiring people to undergo treatments that are both expensive and damaging to the hair over the long term. Procedures to straighten hair often require repeated physical manipulation that can cause damage to the scalp, and also involve the use of chemicals that can cause serious skin problems. These issues fall almost exclusively on Black employees.

Until now, the NJLAD did not have a distinct definition of “race.” See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5. The CROWN Act adds a new definition to the statute. The term “race” now includes “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.” It also adds a definition of “protective hairstyles” that includes “braids, locks, and twists.” These definitions are similar to the ones found in the new California and New York laws. The Governor signed the bill into law on December 19, 2019, and it took effect immediately.

The Resnick Law Group’s race discrimination lawyers are available to answer your questions about a dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York. Please contact us at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or online today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options.

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