Now that Juneteenth is officially a federal holiday — and many U.S. government employees had Friday off — companies and state and local governments are under increasing pressure to craft policies and plans to commemorate the day not just this year, on hasty notice, but beyond.
Dozens of companies such as TikTok, Uber Technologies and Mastercard gave employees paid time off for Juneteenth for the first time last year, amid nationwide racial justice protests. This year, once again, many of the workplaces offering a day off appear to be white collar offices, tech and media companies.
Exceptions include Nike, which is closing all of its U.S. distribution centers and retail stores on Saturday in addition to giving U.S. corporate employees Friday off.
Starbucks is keeping its cafes and distribution centers open on Juneteenth, but hourly workers will get time and a half for working that day, the Seattle-based company said in a statement. Salaried employees required to work that day, meanwhile, will get an extra holiday, and corporate staff will get the day off with regular pay.
“Depending on the industry, it may be less feasible for some employers to offer certain holidays,” said Katie Brennan, a human resources knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Hospitality and retail industries will be less likely to offer certain holidays than other private employers, like nonprofits for instance.”
Target and JCPenney are giving corporate employees the day off, but not closing their retail stores; the National Football League’s holiday applies to its corporate employees, too, though individual teams including the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers also started recognizing the date last year. The New York Times gives employees a floating holiday that could be used as paid time off to celebrate a date of their choosing, including Juneteenth, while Vox Media and Condé Nast are giving employees Friday the 18th off.
What this means for markets is not yet clear. Exchanges have had to close on short notice before, with a large degree of coordination among them. They do this for when former presidents die, for example. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and UBS Group AG told U.S. employees that they will get a floating paid day off.
Last year, more than half of 3,000 employees surveyed by the research firm Gartner said they did not get a holiday for Juneteenth. Because of how late Congress acted, it’s unlikely that companies will be able to enact policy changes immediately, so the effects of the new law will likely be seen more clearly next year.
“Given that it came on so quickly, it will be something that employers will implement in some fashion but it’s not going to take its place among the pantheon of core holidays yet,” said Michael Burns, president of HR Management Group and executive vice president of the American Society of Employers.
Companies will be looking to their competitors for cues, said Brennan. “Private employers are generally not required to provide holiday leave to employees at all, either paid or unpaid, but they do, of course, in order to remain competitive and to attract and retain talent,” she said.
Solidarity statements around racial justice like a Juneteenth holiday can ring hollow when messaging doesn’t reflect internal policies. For example, tech companies that made pledges against racism and white supremacy last year had 20% fewer Black employees on average than ones that didn’t, a May study found. Last spring, Starbucks publicly professed support for the Black Lives Matter movement while prohibiting its employees from wearing BLM apparel and accessories, a policy it later reversed.
And some fear that turning Juneteenth into a corporate holiday will rob it of its meaning. After all, Black Americans have long been commemorating Juneteenth with cookouts, prayer and parades — with or without governmental or corporate recognition.
“My hope is that companies stay out of it,” said Nicole Sanchez, the chief executive and founder of Vaya Consulting, which advises companies on diversity, equity and inclusion. “Determining how and why we observe Juneteenth must come from descendants of enslaved people — Black Americans — and the rest of us should follow as requested. Capitalism is a particularly inhospitable place to have an honest reckoning of the reality and legacy of slavery.”
But the mainstreaming of the holiday may also enhance the public’s fractured knowledge of the long road to emancipation, and the continuing struggle for civil rights. A Gallup survey released Tuesday found that 62% of Americans know nothing or only a little about the holiday, with Black people and Democrats demonstrating the greatest understanding.
Juneteenth honors the 1865 date when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their emancipation, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. National recognition of the occasion has been even more belated than that declaration of freedom.
For employers, closing an office for Juneteenth can provide an opportunity to spark hard conversations about racism in the workplace, or to demonstrate values. “Commemorating this holiday is the next step to showing employees, especially young job seekers or recent graduates who hold their values closely, the importance of inclusion and diversity to the organization — helping retain top performing employees and attract new talent pools,” said Julie Burke, the human resources manager of Keystone Partners, a career management firm.
Juneteenth’s journey has echoes of the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, a milestone that was reached in 1983. It took 16 more years for every U.S. state to formally celebrate the civil rights leader with a paid holiday, showing how long it can take for such observances to become near-universal. Even today, there are some companies that don’t recognize it.
The late state representative Al Edwards helped make Texas the first state to mark Juneteenth a holiday in 1979; 47 states and Washington, D.C., have followed, including New York State last October. And just this month, Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Jorge Elorza made the date a paid holiday for all city employees for the first time.
The challenge for lawmakers and employers will be to match the symbolism of the new holiday with a commitment to tangible change, at a time when state legislators are also discussing laws that would restrict voting rights and the country is debating police reform.
“I suppose we could call the national attention finally being given to Juneteenth ‘significant’ in that it’s being acknowledged. However, what would be more significant and truly impactful for Black folks in this country would be a change in the ways in which we are seen and treated in this country,” said Danielle Hawthorne, the vice president of programming for Code2040, a nonprofit that advocates for racial equity in tech.
It’s possible that the push to observe Juneteenth wanes after the extra attention on it this year, or that it doesn’t reach all corners of the economy. At organizations that are less diverse, such as a company that is heavily engineering or IT-based, there might be less pressure to implement a holiday like Juneteenth, said Carolina Valencia, vice president in Gartner’s human resources practice. “Longer term, when things calm down and inclusivity and racial justice are no longer top of mind for people in general and employees in particular, then probably it will become a floating holiday,” she said.
Still, some organizations are determined for the brighter spotlight to be lasting — and meaningful.
At Per Scholas, which provides technology skills training to underrepresented communities, Juneteenth is a holiday during which employees are expected to “do a little work, and reflect” on the meaning of the day, said Ken Walker, Per Scholas’ executive vice president of diversity.
“Over the past year there’s been a groundswell of commitments, pledges and promises, he said. “We like to challenge corporate America to put actions behind words.”
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