In what’s believed to be the first case in California, a Black job applicant recently sued an event production company for denying him employment for refusing to trim his locks, which he argues is illegal under a relatively new law, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
Jeffrey Thornton’s lawsuit alleges that Encore Global, an Illinois-based firm with an office in San Diego, violated a 2019 California law known as the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair).
In essence, it bans companies from using grooming policies that target Black hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, cornrows, twists and afros.
The act “amends the California Education Code and the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s definition of race to include traits historically associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles. Protective hairstyles include, but are not limited to, braids, locks, and twists,” according to the National Law Review.
Thornton worked for Encore in Orlando from 2016 until the company furloughed him in March 2020 during the pandemic lockdowns. When the company announced a return to work, Thornton relocated to San Diego where he hoped to resume employment with Encore as a tech supervisor for the company’s California branch.
He had a strong recommendation from the Orlando office. So, he didn’t expect problems with the transition to the West coast. He says his Nov. 1 interview went smoothly until the dress code issue came up.
“I expected that I was to remove my ear gauges, I’d be willing to trim my facial hair, but I wasn’t prepared to be told that I would need to cut my hair to comply with Encore standards,” he said.
Thornton announced the lawsuit on Tuesday (Nov. 30) at the Studio Cutz Barber Shop in La Mesa.
“I told them it was a deal-breaker, I wouldn’t be able to come to terms with sacrificing my disciplinary journey and what it symbolized. I was told that if I was willing to make that sacrifice, a position would be waiting for me, which it still is, I assume,” he explained.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified general and punitive damages. It also asks the court for an injunction to prohibit Encore from enforcing the parts of its dress code that violate the CROWN act.
San Diego employment attorney Dan Eaton told the Union-Tribune that employers can legally demand that workers have neat and clean hair.
“What they can’t do is restrict hairstyles that have a racial origin,” he explained. “That is what the CROWN Act is about.”
The Union-Tribune received an email Wednesday (Dec. 1) from Encore, a global provider of technology and production services for events. The company said it regrets any “miscommunication” between Thornton and the company.
“We regret any miscommunication with Mr. Thornton regarding our standard grooming policies — which he appears to fully meet and we have made him an offer of employment,” the email stated. “We are continuously looking to learn and improve, and we are reviewing our grooming policies to avoid potential miscommunications in the future.”