Juneteenth to become federal holiday as House sends bill to Biden

‘For far too long, the story of our nation’s history has been incomplete,’ one sponsor says

From left, Rep. Illinois Danny K. Davis; Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey; Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation; and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith pose with the Juneteenth flag Wednesday ahead of House passage of legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Rep. Illinois Danny K. Davis; Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey; Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation; and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith pose with the Juneteenth flag Wednesday ahead of House passage of legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 16, 2021 at 7:37pm, Updated June 17, 2021 at 11:37am

Juneteenth has always been a jubilee — a celebration of emancipation, a recognition of national sins. Soon, it will be a federal holiday as well.

The House passed legislation known as the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, 415-14, on Wednesday, clearing the bill for the president's signature. The Senate endorsed the measure the day before via unanimous consent, following Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson’s decision to drop his long-standing opposition to it.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — more than two years after the fact. Juneteenth has been celebrated for decades in some states as a day of remembrance, but, without the imprimatur of a federal holiday, most Americans have worked through June 19.

At a celebratory news conference Wednesday before the final vote, the bill’s backers described the new holiday as a day of national atonement.

“What this does is acknowledge the flaws in our country,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “When we were originally founded, the original sin was slavery.”

“For far too long, the story of our nation’s history has been incomplete,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. “The truth has been hidden, because we have failed to acknowledge, address and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery.”

Penance for sins requires contrition, and some critics questioned whether giving government workers another day off would unduly absolve Congress’ conscience before making proper legislative amends. Rep. Ro Khanna called making Juneteenth a national holiday “long overdue.” 

“But so are voting rights. So is restorative justice. So is true equality. We must never lose sight of the long struggle ahead,” the California Democrat tweeted.

Some Democrats argued that recognizing Juneteenth would build momentum for those other goals.

“I hope it breaks the barrier,” Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the measure’s lead sponsor in the House, said before the vote. “This is America’s holiday.”

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith called for using the bill’s passage “to build momentum for the systemic change that we need in this country around voting rights, passing meaningful policing and criminal justice reform, pursuing economic and environmental justice, and working toward a more just and equitable country for all of us.”

When asked how he squared his support for Juneteenth with support for recent changes to Texas’ election laws that Democrats have excoriated as an attempt to suppress minority votes, Cornyn rejected the premise.

“That’s just not true,” he said. “There’s been a lot of misreporting. It is illegal to suppress votes on the basis of race — that’s what Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act says, and that remains a viable means for the Department of Justice to enforce those laws and prevent discrimination.”

Currently, Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., are leading bipartisan talks around a policing bill, and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III is negotiating with his fellow Democrats on federal elections legislation.

On the House floor, Republicans, including many who would ultimately vote for the bill, complained about the relatively quick speed by which it advanced through the chamber, after being held up by Johnson for a year.

“Just a few mere hours ago, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has jurisdiction over federal holidays and the federal workforce, learned that this legislation would be taken up today,” Kentucky Rep. James R. Comer said. “Unfortunately, we have not had ample time to consider the effects of granting the entire federal workforce another day off work.”

A holiday for all?

For the federal government’s 2 million employees, the new holiday is almost here.

President Joe Biden will sign the bill in a ceremony Thursday afternoon, granting those employees either a day off on June 19 each year (or the Friday before, if it falls on the weekend) or paid time-and-a-half if they must work. 

Because it does not include an effective date, the law will take effective immediately. The Office of Personnel Management confirmed that in a Thursday morning tweet, saying “most federal employees will observe the holiday tomorrow, June 18th.”

It’s less clear what Juneteenth will mean for other workers.

“Our government recognizing Juneteenth as a fed holiday is something that is long overdue,” said Adewale Maye, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “But while it is symbolically important, many private employers may choose not to recognize it as a federal holiday and provide paid time off.”

Maye authored a 2019 report comparing U.S. time-off policies against those of other developed nations, finding that America is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t mandate paid vacation or holiday leave for all employees, federal and private. “This vote definitely breathes new life into a conversation about why we have these holidays that only a select few people have access to,” he said, noting that it’s mostly workers in low-paying jobs who are stuck working. 

That means Black workers are less likely than whites to get such holidays off: According to the Economic Policy Institute, the share of Black workers earning below the poverty line was 14.3 percent in 2017, compared with 8.6 percent for whites.

While nearly all private and nonfederal government employees get a day off for Christmas (97 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2018), just 19 percent do for Veterans Day. For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the figure is 32 percent.

MLK Day was first observed in 1986, three years after Congress passed its recognition law. According to Bloomberg BNA surveys of human resources professionals, only 14 percent of companies honored MLK Day that year, but the numbers have risen steadily since. In 2019, 45 percent of private employers closed up shop for the holiday.

Things could move more quickly this time around. Cynthia Turner, assistant dean and chief diversity officer at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, thinks companies will adopt Juneteenth faster than MLK Day.

“The Juneteenth holiday is being proposed during a perfect storm of historic social unrest, a more than yearlong pandemic that has ravaged Black and brown communities, and increased expectations of corporate social responsibility, so I absolutely believe we can expect companies to embrace this holiday more quickly,” she said.

In deciding whether to offer a day off for Juneteenth, Turner said executives will still have their companies’ bottom lines in mind.

“They have to think about whether it advances the company’s mission, is it supported by its stakeholders, and does it strengthen its reputation,” she said.

Some companies already honor Juneteenth as a day off, including big brands such as Nike, Twitter, Square, JCPenney and Target, which keeps its stores open but pays associates time and a half for working that day. U.S. stock markets currently close for nine of the 11 federal holidays, staying open during Inauguration Day and Veterans Day.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.