June 2022 marks one year since President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021, designating Juneteenth as the 11th federally recognized public holiday in the United States. While Juneteenth was already recognized or observed in most states, the federal recognition means most federal government workers are given a paid day off and most federal government offices and courts are closed. Accordingly, private sector companies across the country are considering ways to recognize the holiday.
What Is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, but news did not reach the entire country until years later. More than two years later on June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, the federal order proclaiming all enslaved people in Texas to be free, news that was met with both “shock and jubilation” and has since been celebrated as a holiday. Six months later, the states ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery across the United States.
In addition to the federal holiday, 49 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday or observance with Texas being the first to do so in 1980. The day is typically celebrated with a mix of festivities and events and remembrance of the past. Since Juneteenth falls on a Sunday in 2022, the federal observance is on Monday, June 20.
How Can Employers Celebrate?
While most states had already recognized Juneteenth before it became a federal holiday, only five states—Texas, New York, Virginia, Washington, and Illinois—have made Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees. Now that it is a federal holiday, many companies across the country are struggling with exactly how to observe or celebrate the holiday, particularly in conjunction with their broader diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Whether to recognize the day as a paid holiday is being considered carefully by employers. In this difficult hiring and retention climate, the evidence suggests that employees increasingly want to work for companies that demonstrate DEI values. According to one media outlet’s survey released in April 2021, 78 percent of respondents indicated that it is important to them to work for an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion and a majority (i.e., 53 percent) said it is “very important” to them.
Paid Day Off / Floating Holiday
The declaration of a federal holiday meant that most government workers have the day off, but that requirement does not apply to private sector workplaces. Private industry workers receive an average of eight paid holidays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018. Several private sector companies have decided to or pledged to observe Juneteenth as a company holiday or give employees a floating holiday to be used on Juneteenth or on another cultural or religious holiday not otherwise observed as a paid holiday.
Other workplaces are choosing to host company events or parties to celebrate the day and its recognition of a broader concept of freedom and independence. These can include suitable office celebrations, decorations, announcements, or company picnics. There may also be opportunities for a company to take part in community celebrations such as parades or festivals.
Whether observed as a paid holiday or celebrated in other ways, Juneteenth provides companies an opportunity to host discussions on systemic racism, racial justice, and what can be done to address the issues, which can tie into companies’ DEI initiatives. This can include hosting roundtable discussions or seminars on the significance of Juneteenth, including with company leaders or even outside expert speakers. These conversations can help engage the workforce and demonstrate the company’s awareness and support diversity issues.
The recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday gives federal workers a paid day off and more private sector companies are expected to follow suit. Private sector companies may want to review their own efforts to recognize this day and its significance and may want to consider ways to engage their workforces. While this can strengthen companies’ commitment to DEI, they still may want to be careful not to rely on Juneteenth recognition as a substitute for broader DEI initiatives to increase diversity within and inclusion in the company as a whole.