While New York City restaurants are likely already familiar with the City’s hair discrimination law, as of October 8th New York State is providing additional protection to employees with natural hair, beards, and religious attire. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long banned discrimination based on faith-based hairstyles. However, many governments have expanded such protections to natural hairstyles like Bantu knots, cornrows, locks, and Afros. In addition to offering such protections, New York’s latest law mandates that businesses no longer require employees to wear logos on religious attire worn to work, such as dashikis and burkas.

When the hair bias bill was signed into law this past July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the reasoning for the change:

“For much of our nation’s history, people of color — particularly women — have been marginalized and discriminated against simply because of their hairstyle or texture. By signing this bill into law, we are taking an important step toward correcting that history and ensuring people of color are protected from all forms of discrimination.”

Similarly, the NYC Commission on Human Rights has explained that “Anti-Black racism can be explicit and implicit, individual and structural, and it can manifest through entrenched stereotypes and biases, conscious and unconscious… Bans or restrictions on natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people are often rooted in white standards of appearance and perpetuate racist stereotypes that Black hairstyles are unprofessional.”

How do Hair Bias Laws Protect Employees?

Hair bias laws prohibit employers from enacting policies that can be interpreted as forcing Black employees to manipulate their hair in order to meet business expectations, such as personal hygiene policies that limit the length hair can extend from the scalp (thus restricting employees from wearing their hair in Afros).

Further, hair bias laws protect employees from less obvious instances of discrimination. In addition to policies targeting Black individuals, the discriminatory application of neutral policies and the harassment of minority populations on the basis of appearance are also prohibited. Examples of this behavior provided under NYC Human Rights Law include:

  • Forcing Black people to obtain supervisory approval prior to changing hairstyles, but not imposing the same requirement on other people.
  • Telling a Black employee with locks that they cannot be in a customer-facing role unless they change their hairstyle.
  • Mandating that Black employees hide their hair or hairstyle with a hat or visor.

However, it is important to note that health department food safety rules are not subject to the same limitations as other policies under hair bias laws. For example, if hairnets or beard nets are required under the health code, employers can enforce such a rule while maintaining compliance. 

While many many restaurant owners are supportive of anti-discrimination legislation, it still may be challenging to understand how such legislation affects your business’s daily operations. In addition to preventing discriminatory business practices, hair bias laws work to protect employees from less overt methods of discrimination.