A growing number of companies such as Nike, JCPenney and Target are embracing Juneteenth as a holiday.
Their efforts are happening alongside a push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Juneteenth, or June 19, 1865, is the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing those in bondage in the rebellious slave-holding states, but it wasn't until 1865 that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston, Texas, and delivered the news that the Civil War had ended.
"This is where you put your values in line with your business decisions," says Christy Harris, senior vice president of human resources at Allstate, the insurance company.
Diversity has been a company core value, says Harris. Last year, however, it took steps to intentionally address diversity and equity, and conducted a business review and adopted Juneteenth as an annual paid company holiday.
Companies such as Allstate are largely responding to the massive social movement that was fueled by the killing of George Floyd, a 47-year-old Black man slain in Minneapolis on May 25 last year by a white police officer. Protests erupted around the country, and the world, with calls for police reform and an end to racial injustice.
The now-former Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, is set for sentencing on June 25th, having been convicted for Floyd's murder. Three other former officers are also facing charges next year of aiding and abetting the crime. All four officers are also facing federal charges of violating Floyd's civil rights.
"In the last year and a half there is more awareness, almost every job candidate that I interview asks about Allstate's commitment to diversity and equity," and employees are holding the company more accountable, says Harris, by engaging in open and difficult conversations not previously had about social issues.
"Not only is inclusive diversity and equity the moral thing to do, but it actually makes good business sense, too," Harris says.
"It's a win-win," says Prof. Cynthia Turner, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business, "when you are looking at the issues from the lives of your employees and you show that you hear and see them and their concerns, it is just a win for you."
Turner says that businesses have to really understand what's important for their employees and in turn companies will see increased success.
"When you feel like you belong in an organization, then you're more motivated, engaged and more productive, which ends up reducing costs and improving revenues," she says.
"It gives you a competitive advantage because you also recruit diverse talent, and we also know from research that diverse talent leads to more innovation in your organization," Turner adds.
Julie Stich, a vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, says, "A lot of companies are really looking seriously at their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts."
"When an employer is thinking about adding a paid holiday, for example, Juneteenth, they would start by looking at the holidays they already offer," she says. Then employers have to ask themselves, "Why would they want to offer this as a paid holiday?"
Honoring Juneteenth is "something tangible," she says. "It recognizes the importance of that day."
Other companies are observing the day in different ways.
Target stores will remain open, but the company will grant hourly employees who work on June 19 time and a half pay and corporate employees will get a paid holiday, a company spokesperson confirmed.
Earlier this month, National Grid, the electricity and natural gas company, announced that it's honoring Juneteenth as a paid company holiday.
"Declaring Juneteenth a company holiday is a symbol of our dedication to honoring Black Americans who have suffered the impacts of racism throughout U.S. history," notes Natalie Edwards in a press release. She is chief diversity officer of National Grid.
This year, the retailer Best Buy is offering Juneteenth as a paid holiday to its corporate employees. Hourly, full and part-time employees who work on June 19 will be paid time and a half for any hours worked, says company spokesperson Ryan Furlong via email. This year the company announced it would set up scholarships for BIPOC students, or Black, Indigenous People of Color.
Nike, Inc. has also adopted Juneteenth as a paid annual holiday for U.S. and Puerto Rican-based employees, confirms Jenna Golden, Nike's director of communications for North America.
"Across our Nike, Converse, and Jordan family, we will close our corporate, retail, manufacturing and distribution operations in observance of Juneteenth to provide educational opportunities that honor Black history and culture," Golden notes in an email.
Lyft, the ride share company, honors Juneteenth with a paid holiday for corporate employees, according to Ashley Adams, a spokesperson. However, Lyft drivers are independent contractors and manage their own schedules.
Some media companies, such as Vox and NPR, have also added Juneteenth as a paid company holiday.
This will be the second year Vox employees observe the holiday, "to encourage learning and sharing," says spokesperson Andi Rogoff. The media office will be closed on June 18.
NPR will also observe the paid holiday on Friday 18, though employees who have to work the holiday will get paid time and a half, an NPR spokesperson confirmed.
State governments are also taking notice.
This month Oregon signed legislation to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday, joining 47 states and the District of Columbia, and there is also a push in the U.S. Congress to make June 19th a federal holiday.
"If we do celebrate freedom, let's celebrate freedom," says Opal Lee – a 94-year-old activist who for years has pushed for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.
"Juneteenth is a unifier," Lee says. She's set up an online petition calling the U.S. Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. That's on it's way, too, as the U.S. Senate voted recently to make it so. The U.S. House and the president are the final stops.
Lee remembers family picnic celebrations on June 19. Most white people are only learning about Juneteenth's history in recent years because it was hardly taught in schools, activists say.
"I'm advocating that we celebrate freedom from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July," says Lee.
Making Juneteenth a federal holiday will mark "freedom for everybody," Lee says, adding that she welcomes the recent company trend to honor Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
"People are taking notice, but I want it officially on the calendar," she says.
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