On a Holiday: Juneteenth and Workplace Diversity & Inclusion

Every year the summer months bring the promise of warm weather, vacations, and the annual commemoration of America’s most important and nationally recognized holiday, Independence Day, July 4. While July 4 is always met with much media interest and news coverage, last year its equally important sister holiday, June 19 or Juneteenth, garnered widespread national attention. Set against the backdrop of a global pandemic and civil unrest amidst protests calling for an end to racial injustices and police brutality against the African American community, Juneteenth took center stage.

The month of June came during a period of intense and often uncomfortable conversations regarding race relations in America. With it came the national spotlight on Juneteenth – the commemoration of the date on which the full force of the Emancipation Proclamation was finally realized and legal slavery in America brought to an end. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, news of its issuance was delayed and did not reach the last of the enslaved Americans until June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. The news in Texas was met with shock and euphoria, and Texas became the birthplace of the first Juneteenth celebrations a year later in 1866.

Recognizing the importance of racial and social justice dialogue in overall diversity and inclusion initiatives, many employers took the opportunity last year to demonstrate their commitment to those values by recognizing and observing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. In an effort to continue that commitment, many employers have made Juneteenth a paid holiday again this year, with some going so far as to announce plans to make it an annual paid holiday.

Throughout this era of robust social change, employers are searching for ways to continue to foster diverse and inclusive workplaces while complying with their changing legal obligations. As employers think about how they plan to commemorate Juneteenth this year, there are a few key issues that merit consideration:

Is Juneteenth a Federally Mandated Holiday?

Juneteenth was first recognized as a holiday on January 1, 1980, by the State of Texas, after Al Edwards, a freshman state representative, put forth the bill H.B. 1016. Today, Juneteenth is acknowledged as a holiday in 47 states and Washington, D.C., but not by the federal government. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, a handful of states established Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees or introduced legislation toward that end. Practically, this means that with the exception of the state governments of the handful of states that have recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees, neither private nor public employers have any obligation to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Though it is important to note that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not require an employer to pay an employee for any holiday (federal or otherwise) so long as the employee did not work that day.

Can My Business Foster a More Inclusive Workplace by Recognizing Juneteenth?

Last year ignited a national trend by employers to expand their commitments to diversity and inclusion initiatives by recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. For businesses unable to offer Juneteenth as a paid holiday, there are a number of other ways that the holiday can be incorporated as a part of an overall commitment to fostering a more inclusive workplace.

1. Host an Interactive Lunch and Learn

Employers may consider organizing a company-wide sponsored lunch during which a non-employee invited guest speaker presents on current issues and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

2. Donate

Employers may solicit suggestions from employees for community organizations, charities, and the like whose missions are to promote racial and social justice initiatives. After the solicitation process is complete, employers may select one or more to provide an annual donation to.

3. Provide Educational Resources

Employers may utilize their human resources departments to compile educational resources (websites, videos, and written materials) related to diversity & inclusion issues in the workplace. These materials may comprise a “Diversity & Inclusion Library” that may be made available to employees on demand.

This list is by no mean exhaustive, nor meant to convey or contain legal advice. The important note is that understanding Juneteenth’s historical significance and developing ways to acknowledge its importance will foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace.