Black candidate files hairstyling discrimination complaint

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A black job seeker who had recently moved to San Diego in hopes of continuing his audiovisual career filed a discrimination complaint this week against an event production company, claiming he saw himself refuse a job only after refusing to cut his hair.

The legal claim, which alleges violations of the state’s employment and housing law, specifically invokes a relatively new California law known as the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair ) which prohibits the use of grooming policies directly targeting black people.. The lawsuit is believed to be the first such lawsuit filed under the CROWN Act, which came into effect in January last year.

It amends the Fair Employment Act and the California Education Code to effectively broaden the definition of racial discrimination to include discrimination based on “traits historically associated with race,” such as hair texture and protective African American hairstyles such as afros, braids, twists and locks.

Today, at least 12 states have their own CROWN Acts, including New York, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, and Washington.

The target of the San Diego lawsuit is Encore Global, an Illinois-based event management company with an office in San Diego. Jeffrey Thornton, a transplant recipient from Florida who moved to San Diego earlier this year, had worked for Encore in Orlando from 2016 until his discharge in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

After receiving an email in October from Encore announcing a return to work, Thornton said he was confident he could return to his old job as a technical supervisor – working instead in San Diego – especially after receiving a strong recommendation from his former boss in Florida. .

“I was told that I had been recommended by my references on the East Coast and that the transition should not be a problem,” Thornton said of his Nov. 1 interview with Encore, which was held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. “All that remained was to discuss the dress code, which was not surprising given that I would be working in the hospitality environment and have responsibilities to clients.

“I expected to take my earbuds off, I would be ready to cut my facial hair, but I wasn’t ready to be told I had to cut my hair to meet Encore standards.”

Phone calls and an email to Encore Global were not returned on Tuesday. The company, based near Chicago, is a global provider of technology and production services for major hotel brand events in 20 countries.

Thornton’s lawsuit says Encore required him to cut his hair so that it was outside his ears, eyes and shoulders, and that this would not allow him to comply by tying his hair back .

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday at the Studio Cutz Barber Shop in La Mesa to announce the filing of the complaint, Thornton said he was stunned by the request.

“I told them it was a compromise, that I would not be able to accept to sacrifice my disciplinary journey and what it symbolized. I was told that if I was willing to make this sacrifice, I would have a job waiting for me, which is always the case, I guess.

The lawsuit, filed on Thornton’s behalf by employment lawyer Adam Kent, seeks unspecified general and punitive damages and also seeks an injunction prohibiting Encore from imposing a dress code or a seemingly personal policy. that “violates, or tends to violate, the CROWN Act, in particular, or the Fair Employment and Housing Act, in general.”

“We all expect to be judged on our abilities and our character, but Mr Thornton is told it’s different for him,” Kent said. “He was not told that he was not competent for the job. He was not told that he did not have the necessary skills or training. Instead, he was told what he looked like is the reason he can’t pursue his profession, the career he has chosen… “

San Diego employment attorney Dan Eaton noted that while employers have some leeway in what they can demand of their workers, there is a limit to what they can do when it crosses. the line of potentially discriminatory behavior.

Employers “can certainly demand that employees have clean and groomed hair,” said Eaton, of Seltzer Caplan McMahon & Vitek in San Diego. “What they can’t do is restrict hairstyles of racial origin. This is the purpose of the CROWN law.

San Diego civil rights activist Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, is helping efforts to hold Encore accountable. Encore’s grooming requirements are nothing short of racism, Harris said at the press conference, which included remarks from several local hairstylists. In addition to supporting the legal effort, Harris said his organization plans to lobby the state legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to implement a set of provisions or a task force to ensure that the law is enforced. the CROWN law.

“We can’t pretend to be the innovation leader, the leader against hair discrimination, and then we fail to enforce the policies that we adopt,” Harris said.

He pointed out that Encore highlights its commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion” on its own website, where it states its mission is “to promote the development and advancement of groups. under-represented within Encore by providing opportunities for continuous development, coaching and mentoring. . “

In a letter sent Tuesday night to Encore CEO Ben Erwin, Harris called for a meeting to discuss the company’s diversity commitments with respect to “hairdressing.”

He added: “We ask you, as CEO, to take responsibility for this notion of discrimination, because it is your company and your company that (affected) Mr. Thornton and his opportunity to get a job. Also, it is important to understand that just because it happened to Mr. Thornton and we are drawing attention to it does not mean that it will not happen to another person.

While Thornton’s legal complaint may be one of the first lawsuits in California under CROWN law, there have been several other employment discrimination lawsuits involving African American hairstyles in the past.

In 2007, Abdul-Jabbar Gbajabiamila, an African American of Nigerian descent, lost his job as a manager-in-training at Abercrombie & Fitch’s Hollister store in El Cajon for refusing to remove his cornrows, which was not not in line with the “Looks” of the company. political, ”Eaton said.

The state Department of Fair Employment and Housing challenged the dismissal, citing racial discrimination. But an administrative law judge rejected the change in part because the store had asked white employees to remove cornrows in the past. The judge also cited Federal Court rulings that said Cornrows, unlike Afro, were not necessarily an enduring characteristic of the breed.

Union-Tribune Research Director Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.


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