Juneteenth holiday gaining traction among employers

More employers are recognizing Juneteenth as a company holiday, a year after racial awakening and protests rocked the nation and put employers’ efforts into sharp focus.

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Companies including Best Buy, National Grid and the Hartford are giving employees Friday as a paid day off in recognition of Juneteenth on June 19. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas. It’s viewed as the day slavery ended in the United States.

Company leaders say observing Juneteenth as a holiday–many for the first time–is important recognition for systemic racism and a chance for employees to reflect.

“It’s well overdue,” says Rosa Nunez, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at law firm Foley Hoag, which is giving its 634 employees Friday off. “Recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday is simply the right thing to do and signifies a degree of reckoning with America’s history that is long overdue.”

Nunez says the legal industry has lagged on workplace DE&I efforts for years. “Turning that around isn’t a quick fix,” she says. The events of last year, including the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, made Foley Hoag “reevaluate and consider our firm’s role in society,” she says. “We know we have a lot of work to do as we continue in our journey to become a best-in-class inclusive, diverse and equitable workplace.”

Juneteenth has been an important day for years, but it gained widespread recognition among employers last year amid increased diversity and inclusion efforts. This year, the call is getting louder; after a push from lawmakers, President Biden on Thursday signed a bill to make the day a federal holiday.

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Over the past year, many employers have taken a “serious look” at diversity, equity and inclusion within their culture and workplace, notes Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. “Offering Juneteenth as a paid holiday offers something tangible to those efforts and raises the significance of the date to the same level as other paid holidays. It’s a way for companies to show action within their DEI initiatives.”

Eight percent of companies surveyed by IFEBP in August and September 2020 said Juneteenth would be a paid holiday. The vast majority of them (95%) offered it for the first time in 2020. Of the employers that didn’t offer it in 2020, 1% said they would start offering it in 2021, and 18% said they were considering offering it.

That number is likely to increase.

“The bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday will result in more employers looking at Juneteenth as an option to add to their list of paid holidays,” Stich says.

The Hartford, an insurance company with some 18,500 employees, is one of the companies offering Juneteenth as a paid holiday for the first time this year.

“We’re recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday because everyone–regardless of race, culture or background–should celebrate American freedom, together,” says Susan Johnson, the company’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. “This new company holiday serves as a day for employees to pause, recognize our progress and reflect on what more we can do to address social inequities and create a more just, fair and equitable world.”

The Hartford also added other efforts, including webinars and events for employees to learn and share with one another their perspectives on Juneteenth and how to advance social equity. Much of this work was led by its Black Insurance Professionals Network. The company also is encouraging its workers to volunteer for organizations that support racial equity and support Black-owned businesses, Johnson says.

Other employers, like Target, are offering time-and-a-half pay to employees, treating the day as a holiday.

HR leaders like Nunez hope more employers embrace Juneteenth as a holiday moving forward.

“Recognizing Juneteenth is an acknowledgment of the stain of slavery and a celebration of Black American freedom,” she says. “We hope that other firms will join us in recognizing Juneteenth as a permanent paid holiday.”

Related: Learn more about organizations’ DEI efforts at the upcoming HR Technology Conference. Register here.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.