New York Prohibits Hair Discrimination in the Workplace and Schools

On July 12, 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed S.6209A/A.7797A into law, which prohibits employers and school officials from discriminating against individuals based on hairstyle or hair texture. The bill took effect immediately upon enactment.

Specifically, the law amends the definition of race, as it is used in Section 292 of the Human Rights Law and Section 11 of the Dignity for All Students Act, by adding “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hairstyles” is defined to include, but is not limited to, hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists. 

The new legislation follows guidance issued earlier this year by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) which indicates that the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) protects individuals’ right to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with racial, ethnic, or cultural identities in workplaces, schools, and public places. 

The NYCCHR guidance provides the following examples of potential violations of the NYCHRL:

  • Maintaining policies that ban or require the alteration of natural hair or hair styled into twists, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, fades, or locks.
  • Applying facially neutral policies in a discriminatory manner, e.g., enforcing a grooming policy banning the use of color or patterned hairstyles against Black employees only.
  • Enacting policies that force employees to straighten, relax, or otherwise manipulate their hair to conform to employer expectations.
  • Enacting a policy prohibiting hair that extends beyond a certain length from the scalp.
  • Harassing, imposing unfair conditions, or otherwise discriminating against employees based on aspects of their appearance associated with their race, e.g., prohibiting a Black employee with locks from being in a customer-facing role unless they change their hairstyle.

Although the NYCCHR guidance applies only to New York City, it was cited with approval by the State legislators who sponsored the New York State law.  Accordingly, employers and schools should review their grooming and appearance policies to ensure compliance with the new law.