As Juneteenth becomes federal holiday, employers adjust policies, focus on diversity efforts

Juneteenth became a federal holiday Thursday with President Joe Biden’s signature, giving federal employees Friday off. Gov. Mike Parson announced that Missouri’s state offices would follow suit.

Some Missouri companies had already planned to give workers the day off, while others made the last-minute pivot to offering the holiday and still others are deliberating how they will observe the occasion moving forward.

Juneteenth, on June 19, celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. This year, the holiday falls on a Saturday, so offices are closing Friday in observation.

Like the state government, the statewide university system declared Friday a holiday. The University of Missouri System announced Thursday that all classes and operations are canceled on Friday in observation of Juneteenth.

In the private sector, Columbia-based textbook distributor MBS Textbook Exchange first recognized Juneteenth as a company-paid holiday last year. From 2020 forward, all employees receive paid time off for Juneteenth.

Jerome Rader, vice president of human resources at MBS, said the company is working on an initiative encouraging more open conversations about race in the workplace. MBS hopes in the near future to do additional training in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We’re in the process of developing more of an inclusion awareness throughout the organization,” Rader said, “so that’s an ongoing effort for us at this point in time.”

Kansas City-based railroad operator Kansas City Southern changed its 2021 holiday policy to give employees two days of paid time off per year for holidays of their choice, including Juneteenth, according to C. Doniele Carlson, associate vice president of corporate communications and community affairs.

Carlson said the company also has hosted a series of diversity, equity and inclusion discussions designed to “listen and learn from a cross-section of employees.”

Evolving approaches to Juneteenth

Paid leave policies are beginning to shift for companies across the country, according to a survey by human resources consultancy Mercer. In survey results released in early June, one in 10 employers said Juneteenth is now a paid holiday on their company calendar.

There are many ways companies can observe Juneteenth and promote diversity, equity and inclusion outside of paid time off. St. Louis-based advertising and public relations firm FleishmanHillard — which started observing Juneteenth as a company holiday last year — published an article recommending that companies consider uplifting voices outside of traditional company leadership during and leading up to the holiday.

Cartiay McCoy, the article’s author, also endorsed placing diversity, equity and inclusion teams in charge of Juneteenth social media posts and programming to avoid performative events.

McCoy said companies should also consider imbalances within their own organizations, like pay gaps, lack of opportunities for career advancement for Black employees and noninclusive language used in the workplace. Diversity and inclusion efforts should be a constant within organizations and should not end when Juneteenth is over, McCoy said.

“Juneteenth is a moment in time,” she said, “but employers’ commitment to inclusivity should be viewed as a never-ending imperative.”

Other holiday observations

Columbia-based Shelter Insurance is not providing time off for employees this year but could consider it in the future, said Jay MacLellan, director of public relations. The insurer is hosting a Juneteenth celebration on Friday that will feature an expo of 15 Black-owned businesses.

“We’ve got a lot of employees that are back and in-person,” MacLellan said, “and so we’re taking the opportunity to do that this year and excited to really do all this.”

Similarly, St. Louis-based Ameren, the state’s largest utility, is sponsoring local events in recognition of the holiday, but it’s not giving employees time off this year.

Other big employers in Missouri, including Kansas City-based utility Evergy, have yet to make a decision on the holiday.

“Evergy sponsors various Juneteenth events within our service territory,” the company said in a statement. “Given the bill’s recent passage, we haven’t discussed any changes to our holiday schedule.”

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