California Becomes First State to Ban Workplace Discrimination Based on Hairstyles

In December 2018, a black high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced to either cut off his dreadlocks or forfeit a tournament match after a referee arbitrarily determined that his dreadlocks violated the school district’s uniform code. The nationwide backlash against the referee’s decision led California State Senator Holly Mitchell to introduce a bill to the California Legislature prohibiting discrimination on the basis of natural or cultural hairstyle. Senate Bill 188, also known as the CROWN Act, clarified that racial discrimination includes discrimination against traits that are “historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.”

The Crown Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsome in July 2019. The purpose of the Crown Act is to ensure protection against discrimination in the workplace and schools based on hairstyles by prohibiting the enforcement of ostensibly “race neutral” grooming policies that disproportionately and negatively affect persons of color. Governor Gavin Newsom recently commented that this law was “long-overdue”. Under the new law, which will take effect January 1, 2020, schools and employers in California may not harbor or enforce any policies that prohibit or infringe upon natural or cultural hair, including but not limited to afros, braids, twists, and locks.

By enacting this law, California has become the first state to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on hairstyles historically associated with race. Employers in California should review their current employment policies and practices regarding appearances to ensure that they comply with the CROWN Act. The employment team at Boren, Osher & Luftman, LLP focuses its practice on counseling employers about best practices to comply with California’s extensive employment laws, as well as assisting employees when their employers fail to “get it right”.

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