A Washington labor group yesterday announced the beginning of a petition drive to demand that the Hyatt and Marriott hotel corporations end employment policies that the group said discriminate against black women who wear braided hair styles.

Ron Richardson, executive director of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, Local 25, AFL-CIO, said that all employment practices of the two major hotel chains should be scrutinized in light of recent actions against workers who wear the popular cornrow styles.

In the past year, one Washington area hotel employee was forced to resign and another was sent home from work temporarily after they refused to don more traditional styles.

The petition seeks reinstatement and financial compensation for all employees affected by the hair style policies, an immediate rescission of employee policies banning cornrows and a public apology to the women affected. The petition drive, part of a protest that began last fall with a call for a boycott of the hotels, seeks an increase in the number of blacks and Latinos in higher-level positions at the firms' hotels.

Calling the cornrows controversy a "workers rights issue," Richardson said the situation highlights the vulnerability of nonunion workers. At a news conference at the Washington Convention Center, Richardson said the African-inspired hair style has never been a problem for employees in the area's unionized hotels.

Richardson introduced three women, coiffed in braids, who work at the Shoreham, Days Inn Downtown and Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, which are unionized. The women, who have worn their braids for as long as eight years, have never been disciplined for their hair styles.

"It's because {the hotels} know they have no right under union contract to tell people how to wear their hair as long as it's neat and orderly," Richardson said.

After the news conference, Hyatt Hotels Corp. released a statement saying the company revised its rules regarding the cornrow hairstyles in August, permitting the hair style as long as it is neat and conservative. "At least 12 employees {at the Grand Hyatt} are now wearing cornrows," a spokesman there said yesterday.

The cornrow controversy first gained national attention a year ago when Cheryl Tatum of Capitol Heights was forced to resign from her cashier position at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City because of management complaints about her shoulder-length braids. Tatum now works with a local agency for temporaries. A Hyatt spokesman said Tatum had been offered her job back but refused.

Since then, Tatum and three other Washington area women have filed complaints against Hyatt with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Last month, Pamela Mitchell, a reservations agent at the J.W. Marriott Hotel downtown, left her job after several warnings that she would be fired because of her braids. Mitchell returned to work two weeks ago, after the company concluded that her neat rows of braids were "not excessive."

At yesterday's news conference, labor attorney Eric Steele took advantage of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, likening the public stand taken by Tatum and Mitchell to that of Rosa Parks. Parks helped spawned the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955.