SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — We wash it, style it, and love it. Our hair is extremely important to us, but when it comes to the workplace dress code, employers have a different idea on what hairstyle is professional.
So, it's fitting that Studio Cutz, a barbershop in La Mesa is the location that Shane Harris, founder of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, announced he would be throwing his legal weight behind a lawsuit around hair.
"Let us be very clear," said Harris, pointing to dreadlock sporting Jeffery Thornton sitting in a barber chair. "They thought they were going to get Mr. Thornton to sit down in this chair and get his hair cut,"
The legal challenge revolves around Jeffery Thornton, an audio/visual expert who works in event spaces.
Originally from Florida, Thornton was furloughed by his employer, Encore Global during the pandemic.
After hearing Encore would be hiring more positions on the West Coast, Thornton moved to San Diego where he had an interview.
"I was recommended by my East Coast references and that I should find the transition to be no problem. All that was left was to discuss the dress code," said Thornton to a crowd of reporters. "I expected that I was to remove my ear gauges. It's not a problem. 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,"
Thornton says he told the hiring manager at Encore Global that cutting his dreadlocks was a deal breaker and was told the position would be waiting for him if he did.
He then contacted employment lawyer Adam Kent, who argues that Encore Global is in violation of the CROWN act.
The 2019 California law prevents employers from discriminating against hairstyles, particularly ones traditionally sported by minority groups. In part the law reads:
"Workplace dress code and grooming policies that prohibit natural hair, including afros, braids, twists, and locks, have a disparate impact on Black individuals."
"Professionalism is not about fitting into Eurocentric norms. Professionalism is about competency. It's about skill and respect," said Kent. "We all expect to be judged based on our abilities and based on our character."
In a statement, a company spokesperson for Encore Global said-
"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."
While the claim was filed on Monday, Nov. 29 in San Diego Superior court, the legal challenge is in uncharted waters.
Harris and Kent believe this is the first case in the state that would test the strength of the CROWN act. Harris wants to see justice for Mr. Thornton and for the state to punish those who violate the act.
"Let us be very clear what we are dealing with here. We are dealing with a violation of culture. We are dealing with a violation of rights," said Harris.
WATCH RELATED: San Diego's top stories for Nov. 30, 2021 at 6 p.m.