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Juneteenth Is A Federal Holiday Now, But What That Means For Workers Varies Widely

Mannequins in a clothing shop are posed to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on Juneteenth in Washington, D.C. The day in 1865 that the last enslaved Black people learned they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation is now a federal holiday.
Maya Alleruzzo
Mannequins in a clothing shop are posed to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on Juneteenth in Washington, D.C. The day in 1865 that the last enslaved Black people learned they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation is now a federal holiday.

Stock markets? Open. Post office? Open.

Federal courts? Schools? Banks? Businesses? It depends.

Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery by marking the day enslaved people in Texas learned they were free, is now a federal holiday. The move comes after growing support nationwide for observing the day of celebration and reflection.

But actual practices for marking the holiday still vary widely.

Some government agencies remain open, citing short notice

Establishing a new federal holiday — effective immediately — caused some scrambling at courts and government agencies. They typically observe federal holidays, but this time, there have been a variety of outcomes.

Many "nonessential" government offices did shut down. The U.S. Postal Service remained open, expressing support for the holiday but saying that it is "not possible to cease the operations of the Postal Service" with just 24 to 48 hours to plan for it.

Some federal courts shut down, but not all did.

Similarly, school districts that usually honor federal holidays had to individually decide whether to stay open on Friday, or shut with very little notice to families. There was no consistent strategy: For instance, Baltimore City schools closed, while Baltimore County schools stayed open.

Businesses and nonprofits aren't required to close, and some had to swiftly decide whether to pivot ...

Federal holidays aren't mandatory for businesses in the U.S. But a small number of businesses acted swiftly to observe the holiday — even with just a few hours' notice.

Stanley Black & Decker announced late Thursday that it would take Friday off for "hope and healing" and would honor the new federal holiday in future years as well.

But many others stuck with their previous plans, saying it was just too tough to declare a day off without more warning.

"There just was not enough time to plan and prepare to announce and implement this holiday appropriately," Alesia Jones, the head of human resources at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told NPR.

Jones said she was excited (and surprised) that the federal government and the state of Alabama moved so quickly to create the new holiday. But shutting down a large research institution and hospital without more advance notice "could create a level of disruption or uncertainty" that would be counterproductive. She said the university is committed to recognizing the holiday and working on the details for what it will do in the future.

... while many others were already planning to observe Juneteenth

Many businesses had already planned to mark the holiday. Some started the practice last year, after the racial reckoning prompted by the murder of George Floyd. Reactions to these corporate policies vary, with some rejecting them as empty symbolism while others welcome them as a sign of inclusivity and attention to racial issues.

A Mercer surveyreleased on June 3 found that 9% of surveyed companies planned to observe Juneteenth as a holiday in 2021 — the same percentage as planned to observe Columbus Day/Indigenous People's Day, a long-established federal holiday.

For some businesses — notably Nike — observing Juneteenth means actually closing retail establishments. For others, like Starbucks and Best Buy, locations will remain open, but employees receive extra pay for working.

Other companies say they're recognizing Juneteenth without actually observing it. Google is not giving people the day off but is encouraging them to cancel meetings. AT&T held internal events recognizing the holiday but also encouraged people to use their existing leave to take Juneteenth off.

Rosa Nunez, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the law firm Foley Hoag, argues that nodding to the holiday without paid leave is insufficient.

"It should be a paid holiday and not just a check-the-box holiday added to your calendar," says Nunez, whose organization began observing Juneteenth as a paid day off last year. "You really have to be meaningful and authentic in order to be impactful."

More workplaces may observe the holiday in years to come

Now that a federal holiday has established, many companies that have so far declined to observe the holiday may change course.

Many big banks say they'll start observing the holiday next year, and in the meantime, they're are offering employees a floating day off to use sometime this year. The stock exchanges remain open for this year, although they may reevaluate in the future.

And many other organizations, while not embracing the holiday this year, have indicated plans to work it into their calendars in the years ahead.

Jones says that the top leaders of the University of Alabama, Birmingham have committed to recognizing the holiday in years ahead, although the details are still being worked out. And she says she's not sure if that would have happened without the state and federal recognition.

Nunez says marking Juneteenth is only one of many steps a company should take toward greater equity and equality. And she hopes the federal holiday, although not mandatory for most workplaces, inspires companies to follow suit.

"The recognition of the stain of slavery and slavery in the United States and the work that needs to be done — I mean, it should be followed by many, many organizations," she says. " The private sector doesn't have to follow the government, but it's just the right thing to do."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.