Why and when did Juneteenth become a paid, federal holiday?
Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, is now a federal holiday all 50 US states.
This weekend, Juneteenth will be celebrated as an annual federal holiday across the United States for the first time. As it falls on a Sunday, with only 35% of the population working weekends, on this occasion it will be observed on Monday and will be a paid holiday for state workers apart from those in California.
What is Juneteenth and why is it celebrated?
June 19, known as Juneteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all people held as slaves should be free, was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1963. However, it wasn’t until June 19, 1965 that slaves in bondage in Galveston, Texas were freed. Juneteenth was always been celebrated in many Texas communities and spread to neighboring states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It also appeared in Alabama, Florida and California when African American Texans migrated to other parts of the country. It has been a legal state holiday in Texas since 1980.
Concerns raised about another federal holiday
Recognition of Juneteenth and proposals to make it an annual national holiday gained support after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The fight to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday took a whole year. Democrat US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee proposed the measure to get Congress to formally recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the United States. Ed Markey and John Cornyn also played a significant role in pushing the bill forward. But it was initially blocked with concerns by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who said the additional holiday would create a huge cost for taxpayers.
He argued, “Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate. While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.”
In Connecticut, Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco also voiced concerns, pointing out that state workers would now be able to rack up 46 paid days off a year - 15 vacation days, 15 sick days, three personal days and 13 federal holidays. “Nine weeks! I don’t see anyone in the private sector getting that much time off with pay,” she said. The majority however, were in favour.
Bill passed by the House and signed by President Biden
In mid-June 2021 a resolution to “recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth Independence Day to the Nation” sailed through Congress, passing by unanimous consent on 15 June. A day later, the House passed the legislation in a 415-14 vote, with only Republicans voting against it. The following day, 17 June 2021, it was signed into law by President Joe Biden, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday - the 12th in the United States.
But states still have the power to decide which holidays they will officially observe and lawmakers across the country did not immediately pass resolutions to recognise Juneteenth as a paid holiday with state workers receiving paid leave. The response was initially slow. South Dakota became the last state to make 19 June a legal holiday in February of this year. As for most of the rest of the country, all federal government offices, courts, banks, post offices, schools, and financial markets will be closed. Many private employers are following suit, although they are not legally required to give employees time off.