Despite calls from employers that they’re struggling to find workers during the pandemic, it has seemingly maintained obstacles for Black applicants trying to find work themselves.
In this case, Jeffrey Thornton, a Black man and transplant from Florida, moved to San Diego earlier this year in hopes of furthering his career in the audiovisual field. As an employee of Encore Global, an Illinois-based event management firm that has an office in San Diego, Thornton was furloughed due to the pandemic and hoped to continue his work with Encore. But, according to a recently filed discrimination lawsuit, he was denied employment only after refusing to cut his locs.
Thornton’s lawsuit states that Encore required him to cut his hair so that it was off the ears, eyes and shoulders, and that it would not allow him to comply by tying back his hair, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
The legal claim, which alleges violations of the state Fair Employment and Housing Act and the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), is believed to be the first such legal action filed under the CROWN Act, which went into effect in January of last year.
Today, at least 12 states, including New York, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, and Washington have expanded their laws and codes to effectively widen the definition of race discrimination by including prejudices based on “traits historically associated with race,” such as hair texture and protective Black American hairstyles like Afros, braids, twists, and locs.
Thornton, who received an email in October of this year from Encore announcing a return to work, felt confident he would get his old job back as a technical supervisor — working instead in San Diego — especially after a strong recommendation from his former boss in Florida.
“I was told that I was recommended by my East Coast references and I should find the transition to be no problem,” Thornton said of his Nov. 1 interview with Encore, held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. “All that was left was to discuss was the dress code, which was not surprising considering I’d be working in the hospitality environment and I would have client-facing responsibilities.”
“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.”
Encore, in response, sent an email Wednesday to the Union-Tribune, expressing regret for any “miscommunication” that may have occurred between Thornton and the company.
“Maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace where every individual has a full sense of belonging and feels empowered to reach their potential are core values of our business,” a spokesperson for the company said. “These values are key to fueling innovation, collaboration and driving better outcomes for our team members, customers and the communities we serve.”
“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. We are continuously looking to learn and improve, and we are reviewing our grooming policies to avoid potential miscommunications in the future.”
Thornton is seeking unspecified general and punitive damages and also asks for an injunction barring Encore from imposing any dress code or personal appearance policy that “violates, or tends to violate the CROWN Act, in particular, or the Fair Employment and Housing Act, in general.”