The city council of Seattle recently added caste as a protected class to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. In doing so, Seattle becomes the first US jurisdiction to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside of South Asia, according to news outlets.
On February 21, 2023, Seattle council members passed Council Bill 120511, which adds caste as a protected category under the Seattle Fair Employment Practices Ordinance. The bill goes into effect on March 25, 2023. In a memorandum explaining the legislation, city staff noted that the state of Washington is home to a large and fast-growing population from the South Asian diaspora that is centrally concentrated in the Greater Seattle area. To reduce discrimination based on caste status, CB 120511 bans caste-related discrimination and harassment in various settings, including in employment, public accommodation, and housing decisions.
Violations of the Seattle Fair Employment Practices Ordinance can be enforced by the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) or by individual litigation.
Going the administrative proceeding route, discrimination claims can be filed either by a charging employee or the director of the SOCR. After an investigation by the SOCR, the city attorney can file a complaint against the employer on behalf of the SOCR. The Office of Hearing Examiner will hear the matter and can issue various remedies against an employer if it finds an unfair employment practice occurred, including but not limited to:
Additionally, an individual may pursue individual litigation regarding alleged discrimination against Seattle employers under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, RCW 49.60 et. seq. Remedies in individual litigation include all remedies available under the Seattle Fair Employment Practice Ordinance, except for the $10,000 cap on emotional damages, and could also include:
The caste system is a system that divides people based on their birth or descent. “Caste” is defined by CB 120511 as “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.” Some markers of caste status include surname, food habits, geographic region, or dress.
Although Seattle became the first US jurisdiction to expressly add caste as a protected class, the state of California is currently prosecuting a caste discrimination case under its Fair Employment and Housing Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of ancestry. In 2020, the California Civil Rights Department brought a lawsuit on behalf of an Indian engineer alleging discrimination by two managers in a different caste who was allegedly denied professional opportunities because of his background. On August 5, 2022, the former worker won an appeal allowing him to proceed with the lawsuit under a pseudonym in open court.
Other lawsuits across the country are also asserting discrimination based on caste-status. For example, a federal lawsuit in 2021 accused an organization of exploiting workers to build temples across the country in unfair labor conditions and for less than minimum wage. That same year, universities such as UC Davis and Harvard introduced policies to protect against caste discrimination on campus. Brandeis University and Brown University have adopted similar measures.
As the need for employers to understand the caste system and its implications on the workforce is still unfolding, it is safe to say that employers may now begin to see an increase in caste-related complaints. Although little empirical data currently exists for caste-based bias, Seattle’s new law, and recent litigation and protective policies passed by higher-education institutions and tech companies, indicate caste-based complaints are on the rise and employers will need to be tuned in to how to address these issues or risk litigation.
Seattle employers should consider taking steps now to comply with the new law, including the following:
If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following:
 The ordinance was signed by the mayor on February 23, 2023, and it takes effect 30 days after the mayor’s signature per the bill’s language.
 Back pay liability shall not accrue from a date more than two years prior to the initial filing of the charge. Seattle Mun. Code, 14.04.180(C).
 Id. at 14.04.185(D)
 Simran Jeet Singh & Aarti Shyamsunder, Bringing Caste into the DEI Conversation, Harv. Bus. Rev., Dec. 15, 2022.
 Dep’t of Fair Emp. & Hous. v. Superior Court, H048962, (Cal. Ct. App. 2022).
 Robert Burnson, Ex-Cisco Worker Claiming Caste Discrimination Avoids Arbitration, August 5, 2022.
 Joe Walsh, New Jersey Hindu Temple Allegedly Forced Laborers to Work for $1.20 Per Hour, May 11, 2021.
 UC Davis Adds Caste to Its Anti-discrimination Policy, Nov. 18, 2021.
 Sakshi Venkatraman, Harvard Adds Caste Bias Protections for Graduate Student Workers, Dec. 2, 2021.
 Seattle becomes the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination, February 22, 2023.