Back in March, this blog covered a new regulation from the New York City Commission on Human Rights. That final rule, which became effective at the end of January, regarded religious or race discrimination and an employee’s hair. Our blog post from March offered details about what kind of employer conduct is now prohibited under the new rule but, as any experienced New York discrimination lawyer can tell you, it’s not just about having a protective law or regulation on the books and proving that your employer took a negative action against you, it is also about being able to overcome the defenses that you reasonably can expect that your employer will throw at you. With that in mind, this post shall explore the nature of employer defenses against hair discrimination and how you can confront them.
One affirmative defense that the law makes available to employers is that the employer’s hair or head-covering rules were needed to address a “legitimate health or safety concern.” What’s worth knowing is that it’s not enough for your employer simply to raise the issue of health and/or safety. Instead, the employer must have a specific basis(es) for its purported health and/or safety concern, and that basis must be a legitimate one.
For example, a pharmaceutical manufacturing employer conceivably could enact certain head covering and/or hair-related restrictions for all employees working in “cleanroom” facilities where regulations demand a space that is free or nearly free from particulates.