Less than a month after the Metropolitan King County Council voted to move forward with making Juneteenth a paid county holiday, the council has reversed itself, stalling the legislation and rendering its future uncertain.
Council Chair Claudia Balducci and Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles voted last week to send the legislation back to committee, citing the need for more research, after previously having voted to move it forward out of the same committee.
Kohl-Welles is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
The legislation would give all county employees a paid day off to celebrate Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Texas and announced that all enslaved people had been freed.
Council members had previously supported the measure as part of efforts to make concrete changes in response to mass protests against systemic racism that have dominated the region and the country over the summer.
“In acknowledgement of the continuing struggle for racial justice, as well as the seminal national victory that emancipation represents, the date should rightly take its place of honor as an observed holiday for employees of King County,” the legislation says.
Making Juneteenth a paid holiday for the county’s approximately 15,000 employees would cost about $4.8 million a year, according to a county analysis, mostly in overtime costs for bus drivers, correctional officers and other employees who will need to continue to work through the holiday. The county also estimates the losses in employee productivity due to the new day off at $6.3 million.
King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office has been in contact with the council about the legislation. Alex Fryer, a Constantine spokesperson, said county staff is doing an analysis of the legislation and working with the council on research of the proposal.
“We are also engaging individual employees, employee groups, and our represented employees to get their feedback,” Fryer said in an email.
In late July, just before the County Council adjourned for its summer break, the Committee of the Whole, made up of all nine members of the council, voted 5-1 (with three members absent) to advance the legislation.
Balducci, at the time, expressed reservations that perhaps they were moving to quickly, but voted yes anyway.
But last week, at the council’s first meeting in August, Balducci proposed sending the legislation back to committee.
She said she didn’t think there had been enough community discussion about the issue and that the money it would cost to create a new holiday could perhaps be better spent.
“It hung on my mind for the entirety of break because we’re just not really, fully, I don’t think we’ve given it full consideration as to how to could be implemented, the costs, the labor implications, the trade-offs, the things that won’t get done or that might happen if we charge ahead without thinking it through,” she said.
Her office cited a tweet from the King County Equity Now coalition, about the Juneteenth holiday. “Didn’t ask for this,” it reads.
Kohl-Welles said she still “enthusiastically supports” making Juneteenth a paid holiday, but “there is reason to have more of a discussion.”
Councilmember Rod Dembowski, the bill’s prime sponsor, didn’t understand that. All the bill does, he noted, is add June 19 to the county’s current list of 10 paid holidays.
“It’s a very simple bill,” he said. “The only reason you send it back to committee for more work is because you want to water it down or change it. I think we should give a straight-up added holiday. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
“Sending it back to committee is what we do with legislation that we want to go away,” he said.