Prohibits race discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles; defines “race” for certain specific purposes to include, but not be limited to, ancestry, color, ethnic group identification, and ethnic background, and to include traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles; and defines “protective hairstyles” to include, but not be limited to, such hairstyles as braids, locks, and twists.
New York joins California as the only two states specifically banning hair discrimination in the workplace. Similar bills are pending in New Jersey and Michigan with other states likely to follow. The new legislation is specifically targeted at racial bias against historically African American hairstyles that are the subject of unfair treatment in recent studies.
Florida employers would be well advised to review their grooming policies and tread carefully when making an employment decision based on an employee or job applicant’s hair. A recent case shows that even without a specific ban on hair discrimination, laws already in place can get a Florida employer into unwanted litigation.
Last month, the EEOC sued the owner of multiple McDonald’s franchises in federal court in Orlando because one of its hiring managers told a job applicant to shave his beard to comply with McDonald’s grooming policy. The Longwood, FL restaurant’s policy stated that “[all employees must be completely shaven,” but the applicant, a practicing Hasidic Jew, said he would not shave his beard due to his religious beliefs. In an attempt to reach a solution, the applicant offered to wear a beard net, but his accommodation and his employment were denied. The EEOC has alleged that the hiring manager’s conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, among other things, and requires that employers reasonably accommodate an applicant’s or employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, unless it poses an undue hardship.
In a similar case from 2017, the EEOC settled with an Orlando staffing company for violating religious discrimination laws. The employee, a Rastafarian, refused to cut his dreadlocks to comply with the grooming standards of the hotel he worked for. Rastafarians wear dreadlocks as part of their sincerely held religious belief and when the staffing agency removed the employee from his position at the hotel, it failed to provide reasonable accommodation. Along with a $30,000 pay out, the staffing company agreed to amend its policies and provide training to its managers and HR personnel.
Cases like these should encourage employers to review their policies and practices to avoid discrimination linked to grooming. Employers should be wary of total restrictions on facial hair, like the one from McDonald’s, or vague restrictions on hair, and employers should also consider training their hiring managers to mitigate the risk of liability and ensure that they are aware of the accommodations afforded to applicants under the law.
*Special thanks to Thomas Raine, who assisted in the drafting of this post. Thomas is a third year Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Miami School of Law.