Adding to the list of updates for employers in New York state, a recently-signed bill expressly prohibits employment discrimination based on religious attire and facial hair. The bill adds another amendment to the New York State Human Rights Law. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill on August 9, 2019; the law goes into effect on October 8, 2019.

Under the existing law, employers may not require employees to “forego a sincerely held practice” of their religion, unless the employer demonstrates that accommodating the practice would present an undue hardship on the employer’s business. The amendment does not change that rule. Instead, the amendment simply adds that the “wearing of any attire, clothing, or facial hair in accordance with” religious requirements may qualify as a “sincerely held practice.”  The amendment is distinct from the Legislature’s recent ban on hairstyle discrimination, which is linked to employees’ race rather than religion.

The law is likely to spur discussion among employers where facial hair is subject to specific workplace standards, such as in the restaurant industry, or even the New York Yankees’ well-known prohibition on facial hair. Employers familiar with the Human Rights Law, however, have long-understood the law’s prohibition on religious discrimination to protect employees’ religious practices which require specific attire or facial hair. Even so, the amendment serves as a reminder to employers to review their policies on employee appearance and attire.

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.