It is no exaggeration to say that race has played a fairly prominent role in the evolution of employment rights in American history. Whether it was the right of African-Americans to be paid for their labor at all, as opposed to being considered the property of other human beings, or the right of all people not to have their race be a factor in hiring and firing decisions, employment rights have often been intimately connected with racial issues. While the connection is not always quite so direct, as exemplified by a new measure passed by the Oregon legislature, it is interesting to see how issues of race and employment restrictions continue to be intertwined.
According to the Portland Observer, Oregon recently became the 23rd state in the last ten years to adopt new regulations regarding the licensing of natural hairstyling salons. Before House Bill 3409, or the Natural Hair Care Act passed (unanimously in Oregon’s House of Representatives in April, by a vote of 18-11 in the Senate in late May), practitioners of natural, or chemical-free, hairstyling were subject to burdensome licensing regulations. Now, barring an unexpected veto by Gov. John Fitzhaber, natural hairstylists will have an easier time finding work and running their own natural hair styling salons.
Amber Starks, a Portland resident who owns a salon that focuses exclusively on natural hairstyling, led the fight to ease the licensing restrictions on natural hairstylists when she found out that she could not volunteer her services to children in Oregon’s foster care system without having a cosmetology license. Acquiring a cosmetology license can be quite expensive, as well as time-consuming; training can cost as much as $17,000 (not including materials that students often must provide themselves) and can require 1,700 hours of coursework, which can take up to two years to complete. Despite this significant investment of time and financial resources, cosmetology students are often never even taught the basics of natural hairstyling, which normally includes knowing how to braid, loc, twist, or dread hair.
While natural hairstyling can of course be practiced by and on members of any racial or ethnic group, it is most often found within the African-American community. Therefore, these onerous and largely ineffectual licensing restrictions, which created barriers to employment in the field of natural hair care, disproportionately fell upon African-Americans. After Ms. Starks contacted Oregon Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer and state Senator Jackie Dingfelder of northeast Portland with her concerns about the restrictions on natural hairstylists, they began to help shape legislation regarding this issue. Starks also worked with Michael Alexander, the president of the Urban League of Portland, to understand the legal issues around cosmetology law and to build a network of support within the community around this issue. Under the new law, natural hairstylists will no longer have to get a full cosmetology license; they will only be required to get a newly-created license by the Board of Cosmetology that requires proof that they know health and safety standards, and that limits them to practicing only natural hair care.
While some natural hairstylists have expressed reservations that the new law will create more competition and lead people to inexperienced and unlicensed stylists who do not know what they are doing, many feel that helping remove the hurdles for people who want to start businesses based exclusively on natural hair styling is the right move under the current economic conditions. Now that the old restrictions, which disproportionately affected African-Americans, are gone, more people will be able to enter the market for natural hair styling.
If you believe that you are facing employment regulations that disproportionately affect you on the basis of your race, gender, or other protected classification, please contact one of our attorneys to help you pursue your claim.