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On October 23, 2020, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto signed into law the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act), which amended various portions of the Pittsburgh City Code to prohibit employment, housing, and public accommodation discrimination based on an individual’s “hairstyle” and “protective and cultural hair textures and hairstyles.”

The CROWN Act defines “protective and cultural hair textures and hairstyles” as “hairstyles and hair textures most commonly associated with race,” which expressly include, but are not limited to, “braids, cornrows, locs, Bantu knots, Afros, and twists, whether or not hair extensions or treatments are used to create or maintain any such style, and whether or not hair is adorned by hair ornaments, beads, or, headwraps.”

In the employment context, the CROWN Act now makes it clear that it is unlawful for any employer to, among other actions, refuse to hire any person or to otherwise discriminate against any person with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, promotion, discharge, or any other terms, conditions or privileges related to employment because of that person’s hairstyles or protective and cultural hair textures and hairstyles. Guidance from the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations states that this “remains true [even] if hairstyle is even part of the reason or motivation for the less favorable treatment of (or ‘adverse action’ against) the employee [or applicant].”

Although the effort was purportedly not coordinated, the Allegheny County Council also passed a CROWN Act, which made substantively similar amendments to the Allegheny County Code of Ordinances that the City of Pittsburgh CROWN Act had made to the Pittsburgh City Code. Both CROWN Acts passed by the Pittsburgh City Council and Allegheny County Council are now effective.

Various federal, state, and local laws have prohibited employers based in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County from engaging in race-based discrimination, which would presumably include making adverse employment decisions based upon an employee’s characteristics such as hairstyles and hair texture. However, by enacting these CROWN Acts, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have taken the next step and joined multiple states, including California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington, as well as a number of localities across the country that have expressly prohibited such a practice.

Those employees who believe that they have been subjected to hairstyle discrimination can now file a complaint with the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations and/or the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission, which are administrative agencies tasked with investigating employment-related civil rights violations.

Accordingly, employers located in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County should take the following steps to ensure their compliance with the CROWN Acts and avoid potential litigation:

  • Review their employee grooming and/or appearance policies and remove bans, restrictions, and prohibitions of those hairstyles expressly protected by the Crown Acts.
  • Avoid selectively enforcing employee grooming and/or appearance polices, such that the policies apply equally to all employees regardless of race (e.g., African American employees with shoulder-length locs or braids may not be told that they cannot maintain their hairstyle at work because it is not “tidy” or “kempt” if Caucasian employees with fine or straight shoulder-length hair are also not told the same).
  • Consider revising any Equal Employment Opportunity Policy to clarify that discrimination based on traits historically associated with race, such as hair textures and certain protective hairstyles, is considered a form of race discrimination.
  • Train managers on any policy changes and on how to address grooming and/or appearance policy violations.
  • Continue to engage in the interactive process for employees who request religious reasonable accommodations related to hairstyle.