Articles Tagged with hair discrimination

On the morning of July 10, 2019, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed new legislation into law providing protections for equal pay for women and increasing protections against race and gender based employment discrimination. The legislation was signed at the ticker-tape parade for the United States Women’s National Soccer Team, who won the World Cup on July 7th and have made headlines in recent months regarding gender-based pay disparity. The passage of these bills was a symbolic action of solidarity between New York State and the U.S. Women’s National Team, who filed an equal pay lawsuit in Federal Court earlier this year. After signing the legislation into law, Governor Cuomo stated, “We say to the U.S. Soccer League, and we say to FIFA, if you don’t pay women what you pay men, then you have no business in the state of New York.”

These three bills, signed this past summer, are part of a larger effort by the New York State to provide greater protections to employees in the state, aiming to prohibit employment discrimination based on gender and race. These laws will hopefully mark the development of a more employee-friendly workplace environment within the state. As New York is the third largest contributing state to America’s national GDP, such an improvement would be significant. New Jersey has also adopted significant employee-friendly legislation in the past two (2) years, including the New Jersey Equal Pay Act, the S121 Non-Disclosure Bill, Paid Sick Leave and amendments to the New Jersey Wage Payment and New Jersey Wage and Hour law. Following these enactments, New York’s similar enactments will serve to further enhance the protections for employees within both states, and across the region.

The first of two bills Governor Cuomo signed on July 10, Senate Bill 5248, prohibits wage differentials based on protected class status. It requires equal pay for substantially similar work when performed under similar working conditions. Similar to the New Jersey Equal Pay Act, the bill only allows for a differential rate of pay when it is based on a seniority or merit system, a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality, or a bona fide factor consistent with business necessity. Additionally, the bill lowers the burden of proof for a person claiming discrimination and provides a civil penalty for violations of the act. The stated purpose of the law is to prevent irrelevant factors – such as gender – from influencing employers in their salary distribution decisions. The passage of this law came after a wave of equal pay lawsuits have shaken governments across the United States. The bill will go into effect 90 days after its enactment.

Last month New York City took action to combat an often-overlooked form of race discrimination involving employee’s hair.  In February 2019, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (the “Commission”) published new guidance that explains that employers (as well as housing providers and providers of public accommodations) can no longer institute policies or practices that discriminate against people on the basis of their natural hair texture or their choice to wear a hairstyle commonly associated with African Americans, such as an afro or dreadlocks.  According to this new guidance, the Commission views such policies and practices as violative of the New York City Human Rights Law (the “NYCHRL”), announcing that in the Commission’s view, “Black hairstyles are protected racial characteristics under the NYCHRL because they are an inherent part of Black identity.

Discrimination based on hairstyles is an issue that courts across the country have grappled with over the years, with generally employer-friendly results. Courts have been fairly consistent in finding that where a person’s hairstyle is tied to their faith, employers cannot restrict their right to express their faith through their chosen hairstyle. On the other hand, where the person’s hairstyle is tied to their cultural identity and heritage, courts have not been so kind.  For the most part, if an employer implemented a race-neutral policy banning hairstyles associated with Black people, courts have not found discrimination. Similarly, race-neutral policies restricting “unkempt” or “messy” hairstyles have generally gained approval from the courts.

For the most part, in order to prevail, a plaintiff had to show that they were specifically targeted in some way, or that the employer’s policy was not applied neutrally.  In other words, employees had to demonstrate that the employer’s defense – that the employee failed to comply with a race-neutral employee grooming policy – was pretextual and that the employer’s true motive was discriminatory.  Proving pretext can be extremely difficult, which explains why most employers have succeeded when their grooming policies have been challenged as racially discriminatory.