By Allison Plotnik
Massachusetts is the latest state to ban hairstyle-based discrimination in employment, schools, and places of public accommodation. The CROWN Act prohibits discrimination in workplaces and schools based on hair texture or hairstyles associated with race, including braids, locks, twists, and other formations. The Act alters the Commonwealth’s anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B, by defining “race,” which is protected under the law, to include “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length, and protective hairstyles.” Employees who have experienced this kind of discrimination can now take comfort in being protected under the law in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts joins 18 other states in enacting the CROWN Act after California first enacted it in 2019. Hairstyle-based discrimination is not currently protected at the federal level, and the Supreme Court previously declined to review a federal case where the court found that an employer’s refusal to hire an employee because she wore locks did not violate federal civil rights law. The US House of Representatives passed a national version of the CROWN Act in March, but the bill has not been considered in the Senate. The Massachusetts CROWN Act came after an instance where a Massachusetts school came into the spotlight for punishing two Black students for wearing hair extensions because of the school’s policy banning hair braid extensions. Mya Cook, one of the students punished for wearing extensions, told WBUR that it felt amazing to see how she and her sister had changed so many lives with the new law.
Since hairstyle discrimination was not previously protected by federal law, the Act provides new protection for Massachusetts employees and will allow lawsuits for discrimination based on hairstyle. The Act is significant because it acknowledges discrimination that has been happening for years, and it is now protected by statute. Employees who report discrimination based on hairstyle or other protected characteristics, such as race, sex, or age, are also protected by statute from retaliation for filing a complaint.
An employee who proves their employer discriminated against them based on hairstyle may be entitled to recover monetary damages. Compensatory damages can include back pay (the money and benefits an employee would have received had their employer not discriminated against them), front pay (in situations where reinstatement would be an available remedy but is denied for reasons particular to the claim), and emotional distress damages. Punitive damages to punish the employer for discriminating may also be available.
The law authorizes the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) to create rules, policies, and recommendations for interpreting and enforcing the new provision. Until we see how the MCAD construes the new protections, Massachusetts employers should make sure policies, including employee handbooks, employee training materials, and hiring processes do not violate the CROWN Act by banning certain hairstyles. Employers should also make sure their employees know about the change to ensure everyone follows the new policies.
Employers should seek counsel regarding how to comply with the new law before it goes into effect on October 24, 2022. If you have questions about the CROWN Act and how it applies to your situation, call Rodman Employment Law.