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Why do we celebrate Juneteenth?

Juneteenth gets its name by combining the words June and nineteenth. It recognizes the day that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. They took military control of the state and freed enslaved persons in a state that was otherwise ignoring directives to free them.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Many of the southern states, including Texas, ignored the directive. This remained true even after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army in April 1865. As a result, General Gordon Granger and his troops were sent to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation after the Civil War.

June 19 was originally celebrated as the end of slavery in Texas as Jubilee Day, which started the year after troops arrived in Texas. Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1979.

In June 2021, Congress passed a resolution to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed the resolution, and it became law on June 17, 2021, creating a new federal holiday. According to some experts, traction in Washington, D.C., for declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday came in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. As a result, the date has become somewhat of a politically charged holiday, highlighting the ongoing need for racial justice throughout the United States. Nonetheless, the history of the holiday extends far beyond any racially charged theories that have appeared within the past several years.

How can my small business recognize the Juneteenth holiday appropriately?

In general, private employers are not required to recognize federal or even state holidays. This rule applies to all holidays, not just Juneteenth. However, if your company recognizes other federal holidays, you may want to consider treating Juneteenth similarly to other holidays. For example, if you normally allow workers to have the same days off as banks, you may want to consider doing the same for Juneteenth, as it is a bank holiday as well.

If your company celebrates some holidays but not others, you might want to consider polling your team to see if they would like Juneteenth off. Some employees may want the day off with paid time, while others may be more inclined to work through the holiday.

If you decide to keep the doors open for the holiday, you might want to consider various ways to celebrate the holiday. It is important, however, to be mindful about what you choose to do, as over-the-top celebrations or certain activities may not be received well. Below are a few suggestions for Juneteenth celebrations.

  • Set up a lunch and learn session. Many people are unaware of the background of Juneteenth. You can celebrate the holiday by educating your employees about its history during a company-sponsored lunch.
  • Organize volunteer work. Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates freedoms, so giving back to the community can be a great way to celebrate further with your team. Consider lending a hand to a local charity in your area that serves minority communities, enhances civil rights, or fights racial injustice as a way to give back.
  • Host a charity donation drive. Donations can be a good way to give back without sacrificing work time. A donation drive can bring the team together and help the community at the same time.

The history of Juneteenth certainly gives cause for festivity. Get creative in helping your team celebrate. This type of memorial often fosters feelings of inclusiveness and appreciation of the historical struggles of African Americans.

What policies might require updates if I want to give my employees the day off?

If you decide to give workers the day off, consider taking steps to update certain policies and procedures in the following common internal documents:

  • Employee Handbook. An Employee Handbook typically lists the days off that a company provides each year. If you decide to give workers the day off for Juneteenth, be sure to add it to your list of annual holidays.
  • Job Postings. Many companies list out paid holidays in their job postings to attract new talent. If you use a Job Posting Template that includes this information, be sure to add Juneteenth.
  • Employee Contracts. Some employers include a list of holiday schedules in their Employment Contract. These lists might also appear in union contracts or employee benefit listings for certain positions. Be sure to update all individual contracts with the new holiday information.

Review all your internal documents to confirm whether they list paid or unpaid holidays. Be sure to update any such list to reflect your current policies. Even if you decide not to give the day off or designate it as a paid holiday, it’s best to let employees know that as part of your policies or employee benefits.

If you update any of your policies, it is generally a good idea to provide workers with an updated copy, whether that is electronically or in hard copy. If you do not already have an Employee Handbook, consider making one to help your employees understand your expectations, policies, and rules. An Employee Handbook can also be a helpful way to convey legally required information to employees, including harassment policies or anti-discrimination information.

Keep in mind that how you treat the new public holiday this year does not necessarily mean you have to treat it the same next year, but it is a good idea to keep internal policies consistent from year to year. Since Juneteenth is on a fixed date every year, employers may end up providing the day off one year when it lands during the week but not the next year if it lands on a weekend.

Are employees entitled to overtime if they work on Juneteenth?

Federal employees are generally entitled to time off or overtime if they work on federal holidays. That said, providing overtime pay or giving paid days off for federal holidays is rarely required for private sector employers. Nonetheless, a few state governments require employees to be paid overtime or receive holiday pay if they work on a federal holiday. However, guidelines around holiday pay or overtime are typically set by individual employer policy rather than state or federal law.

Employers that provide holiday pay or time off for other federal holidays may want to strongly consider establishing the same rules for Juneteenth. Such treatment, however, is not technically required.

If you are an employer or employee who has questions about holiday pay or setting policies regarding holiday pay, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice. 

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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