Employers take actionable step on diversity with Juneteenth holiday

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In the wake of civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, companies and states are officially recognizing Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery on June 19, 1865, and giving employees time off.

CEOs for Lyft, Square, Postmates and Vox Media took to Twitter to announce the move, joining employers like Target, the NFL and Nike. A Juneteenth initiative by Bay Area collective Hella Creative includes a growing list of more than 400 companies that have publicly committed to observing Juneteenth as a company holiday with time off.

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“Juneteenth is not just a day that's nice to have; it's a day that's required,” says Joy Ekuta, a member of the Hella Creative team. “We’re hoping that [the movement] leads to more conversations [about] how are you making sure that what you’re doing is inclusive? Where are you putting your money?”

Hella Creative’s goal is to provide resources for employees to ask for the day off and push for the holiday to be celebrated nationally. The site includes templates for social media posts, employee time-off requests and printable posters — all tools designed to raise support and awareness.

“It's not just about a holiday. It’s a company's policy,” says Ekuta. “It's the company's responsibility to put practices into place and to start making incremental changes.”

Read more: What employers can do to support black employees right now

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over and all slaves were free. While President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 marked the official end of slavery in the United States, it wasn’t until Juneteenth that all slaves were actually freed.

Since then, communities in the South have commemorated the day with celebrations traditionally including rodeo, fishing and barbecuing. Celebrations faded in the early 1900s, but experienced a resurgence with the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. In 1980, Texas made history as the first state to formally recognize the day as a state holiday.

With issues of racism and diversity and inclusion initiatives at the forefront, states and workplaces are acknowledging the importance of addressing this date. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to give state employees Juneteenth as a paid day off, with intention to create legislation that makes the day an official state holiday starting in 2021.

"What we have determined from this period of unrest and demonstration [is that] we need to change. We need reform,” Cuomo said. “Friday is Juneteenth. It commemorates the emancipation of slavery in the United States. It is a day that we should all reflect upon. It's a day that's especially relevant in this moment in history.”

The U.S. currently has 11 official holidays, and federal law requires that government employees be allowed to take time off on each day. Additionally, each state has its own list of holidays when they must give state employees time off. For private companies, it is up to management to decide which holidays to give employees off.

While the number of companies formally recognizing Juneteenth continues to grow, many firms have not made any moves to publicly honor the day. Large companies like General Mills and Tesla have remained silent on the issue.

Recognizing Juneteenth is just one step an employer should be taking when addressing and reflecting on how their workplace can be more inclusive, Ekuta says.

“Companies should continue to do the work,” she says “We'll provide some of the resources. But at the end of the day, we want to make for a push for companies. It’s their responsibility to continue to change these policies.”

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