On February 22, 2023, the Seattle City Council voted to amend the Seattle Municipal Code's prohibition on discrimination in the workplace to include a prohibition on caste discrimination. If signed by the mayor, this new law will become effective 30 days after it is signed and will be the first of its kind in the nation.
The amendment to Code Section 14.04 defines caste as "a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion." Caste discrimination can manifest itself in subtle ways and typically occurs where one member of a higher caste discriminates against a member of a lower caste. In addition to race, color, or complexion, one's caste may also be assumed based on surnames, the municipality from which the individual may have immigrated or the schools they attended in certain diaspora communities. While caste discrimination has historically been more pervasive in South Asian diaspora communities, the new law hopes to provide protections for individuals from all geographic regions who face caste discrimination.
Seattle Municipal Code 14.04 currently prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual based on a number of protected classes including "race, color, age, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, political ideology, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship or immigration status, honorably discharged veteran or military status, an individual's actual, potential, perceived, or alleged pregnancy outcomes, or the presence of any disability." The proposed amendment will add now "caste" to the list of protected classes.
Opponents of the amendment contend that there is insufficient data on caste discrimination, and that the law could result in greater discrimination against Hindus as well as an increased reluctance by employers to hire South Asians. Proponents counter that caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries and that the amendment does not malign any specific community.
We anticipate that there will be an uptick in complaints filed with the Seattle Office of Civil Rights for alleged caste discrimination. We expect them to be handled in the same manner as other discrimination complaints within the City of Seattle. It is also likely that other municipalities may follow suit and amend their laws to include "caste" as a protected class. Even as this is the first law to explicitly recognize caste discrimination, a former Cisco employee recently brought a lawsuit in California state court against his former employer alleging caste discrimination based on a theory that it is a form of discrimination based on ancestry (which is prohibited under California law) or race.
Before the new law goes into effect, employers with employees in the City of Seattle should plan to:
- Ensure that anti-discrimination policies are broad enough to include "caste" among the prohibited forms of discrimination. Most policies already include language that extends discrimination protections to "any other basis prohibited by federal, state or local law." This catch-all phrase is particularly useful for employers with employees across several localities. In such cases, the anti-discrimination policies need not be revised. Employers may elect to explicitly add "caste" to provide greater clarity to their workforce.
- Update anti-harassment and other trainings to incorporate the prohibition against caste discrimination.
- Train Human Resources team members to be aware of the prohibition on caste discrimination.
As always, DWT will continue to monitor these issues and provide updates as they occur. In the meantime, the lawyers on the DWT Employment Services team are available to assist with questions related to the proposed new law.
* Thank you to Thaila Sundaresan for her contributions to this blog post.