Juneteenth Established as a Federal Holiday: Considerations for Public Education Employers

CATEGORY: Special Bulletins
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
PUBLICATION: LCW Special Bulletin
DATE: Jun 18, 2021

On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, (the “Juneteenth Act”) into law to recognize the end of slavery in the United States.  This new law adds Juneteenth, which takes place on June 19th of every year, to the list of federally recognized holidays. Because Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year, non-essential federal government offices and services are closed for the day and federal government employees are observing the holiday (and receiving their paid holiday) a day early.  However, California public school and community college districts should consider the following in treating Juneteenth as a paid holiday this year.

Currently, California public school and community college district are most likely not required to close and provide a paid holiday for Juneteenth.  In California, public schools and community colleges must close and give employees a paid holiday on specific days identified in the Education Code.  In addition to the more familiar holidays, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, public school and community college district must observe any day “appointed by the President” as a “public fast, thanksgiving or holiday.”

Although at first glance it may appear that President Biden’s signing the Juneteenth Act satisfies these requirements, the California Supreme Court has held that a “public fast, thanksgiving or holiday” refers to a “non-recurring” holiday, such as a day of mourning following the death of a president.  Juneteenth is a recurring holiday and thus not a mandatory paid holiday under the Education Code. Moreover, all prior cases on this issue dealt with presidential proclamations.  In contrast, the Juneteenth Act is an act of Congress that merely amends the list of federal holidays in the United States Code.  The President’s signature on that act does not appear to be a presidential declaration of a “public fast, thanksgiving or holiday.”  Employees and their representatives may argue that the enactment of a law should be treated no differently than a proclamation for purposes of determining school closures and paid holidays, but the Education Code requires public schools and community college districts to adopt the holidays appointed by the President—not Congress.  Based on this interpretation, California public schools and community college districts are not required to close down or provide a paid holiday this year for Juneteenth.

California public school and community college districts should weigh the risks in considering whether to close down and provide a paid holiday to employees in honor of Juneteenth.  A school that provides a paid holiday today when it was not obligated to do so may have to address issues relating to unanticipated costs, providing unauthorized paid time off, payroll issues, potentially disgruntled employees and even an allegation of making a gift of public funds argument.   The failure to bargain with labor organizations before instituting a new holiday further complicates matters, as holidays are a mandatory subject of bargaining.

On the other hand, if a school or community college district remains open when it should not have, its Board of Trustees can remedy the situation by providing a floating holiday or other benefit to provide a paid day off in the future, and incorporate the Juneteenth holiday into the academic calendar moving forward.  In the meantime, public school and community college districts may acknowledge the importance and historical significance of Juneteenth and reiterate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  California has designated Juneteenth as a day of observance since January 1, 2004, “to honor and reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have played in the history of the United States.”

If clients have any further questions regarding the above information, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore attorneys are available to resolve any doubts.

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