Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, is likely to become an official paid holiday for King County employees, under legislation advanced by the Metropolitan King County Council on Tuesday.
A County Council committee, made up of every member of the County Council, voted 5-1 to add Juneteenth to the county’s slate of 10 paid holidays. While the full County Council still must approve the legislation, passage seems assured.
Celebrated on June 19, Juneteenth marks the day that Union soldiers arrived in Texas in 1865 and announced that all enslaved people had been freed. The Emancipation Proclamation had, on paper, freed enslaved people more than two years before, but the news, and Union soldiers to enforce the change, had not reached Texas.
Arriving in Galveston, Texas, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered, Union Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The holiday is the latest effort from local lawmakers to make concrete changes in response to mass protests against systemic racism that have dominated the region and the country over the past two months.
The County Council moved last week to strip power from the county sheriff’s office. In Seattle, protests against police brutality have swept the city and a majority of the City Council has endorsed a broad plan to cut Seattle police funding by half. The City Council also banned crowd control weapons like tear gas, although that legislation is on hold, and Mayor Jenny Durkan has pledged $100 million to so-far unspecified programs serving communities of color.
County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, the legislation’s lead sponsor, said he’s been to Juneteenth celebrations in years past but didn’t fully grasp the importance and significance of the holiday until this spring.
“The way I looked at it, was to say we pay folks to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, we pay folks to celebrate Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and the day after Thanksgiving,” Dembowski said. “I looked at that list and I thought that frankly the liberation of African Americans in America warranted the same or better treatment.”
Washington is already one of 47 states that recognizes Juneteenth as a holiday, but it is not a paid day off. Texas was the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, in 1980, while Washington did so in 2007. This year, Virginia, New York and the city of Portland made Juneteenth a paid day off for government employees.
Making Juneteenth a paid holiday for the county’s approximately 15,000 employees will 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.
Councilmember Kathy Lambert was the lone vote against the legislation. (Councilmembers Joe McDermott, Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer were absent or did not vote). Lambert noted that county employees, with holidays and three weeks of vacation, have a month and a half of paid time off a year.
“We need to be looking at the taxpayers who are paying for all holidays, not just this one,” Lambert said. She proposed offering employees varying schedules where they could choose which holidays they would choose to take paid time off.
Dunn proposed doing a “deeper dive” on the costs of creating the new holiday, as the county will have to scramble to balance its budget with tax revenues decimated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I just want to flag, we are in very serious financial times right now, the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations in America,” Dunn said.
Dembowski said arguments about the cost of the holiday did not sway him.
“This is about humanity and respecting the dignity of a portion of the population in this country that has frankly been put behind and put second and put last for 400 years,” he said. “You cannot, in my view, put a price on it.”