Adding to an already busy summer of New York state employment law developments, employers and human resources professionals should take note of an amendment to the state’s Human Rights Law that adds protections for employees based on certain “traits,” including hairstyle. The amendment passed the State Legislature in June, and Governor Cuomo signed it into law on Friday, July 12, 2019. The law takes effect immediately.

It is well-known that race is a protected characteristic under the law. The amended law adds to the definition of “race.” Under the amendment, “race” now includes “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture and protective hairstyles.” “Protective hairstyles” are defined by the law as hairstyles such as “braids, locks, and twists.”

Employers should note, however, that the law identifies hair as just one possible “trait” that could be considered “historically associated with race.”

The law makes New York the second state to expressly protect hairstyles under its anti-discrimination law. California passed a similar law earlier this month.

The measure brings the New York State Human Rights Law in closer alignment with the New York City Human Rights Law. In February, the City Commission on Human Rights published legal enforcement guidance on hairstyle discrimination in the workplace. That guidance states that the New York City Human Rights Law protects individual rights “to maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities.”

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Melville, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Uniondale and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.