Q: Can you describe to me what the CROWN Act is? I thought I had a sound understanding of state laws, including PFML, but this is a new one for me. Also, does it apply to everyone? What about independent contractors or temps? Can you help me understand?
A: The CROWN Act bans discrimination based on a person’s hairstyle, and in particular hair styles that may be associated with race. Signed into law by Governor Baker, the law became effective on October 24, 2022. Massachusetts has joined a growing number of states in prohibiting discrimination in schools and workplaces, based on hairstyles that are historically associated with race.
To share more detail, I consulted Robert Shea, a partner at Beck Reed Ridden LLP in Boston. Shea explains that the “CROWN” in the CROWN Act stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” Shea further adds, “The Act does not create a new protected class of individuals but rather expands the definition of race across multiple statutes in Massachusetts.” The primary anti-discrimination statute in Massachusetts, Chapter 151B, now has an expanded definition of racial discrimination, which includes hairstyles that may be “historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length and protective hairstyles.” More specifically, these hairstyles include braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots or hair coverings. In the past, workplace dress codes may have forced many men and women to adapt their hairstyles to conform to a dress code, or a health or safety standard.
The CROWN Act applies to employers with 6 or more employees. Independent contractors and temporary employees can also file a claim against an employer, or a school, citing race, or CROWN Act, discrimination.
In Massachusetts, the CROWN Act was born out of a 2017 policy violation, which occurred at a Massachusetts charter school. Two sisters were disciplined for wearing braid extensions, which school administrators said was against school policy. This hairstyle had been banned at this charter school at that time and the sisters were barred from several school events. CROWN Act supporters have expressed concerns about how Black women, in particular, have been treated differently because of their hair styles. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against the school, based on the school’s policy.
Massachusetts employers should review any related policies and/or handbooks to ensure they are complying with the CROWN Act. If there are health or safety issues within the workplace (e.g. serving food or operating machinery), an employer may request that hair should be covered or fastened to eliminate health or safety concerns. However, these requests should be applied consistently, to any employee, based on the role and the job duties.
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.