It took filmed murder for many American institutions to recognize Juneteenth. After the police killing of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis, the country’s racial reckoning included an overdue spotlight on June 19, the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free.
While many communities across the U.S. have long commemorated the end of slavery on this day, it wasn’t until Wednesday that an overwhelming majority of Congress voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, the first addition to the country’s slate of observations since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approved in 1983. National lawmakers followed the lead of state governments like Washington’s, which voted this year to make Juneteenth a paid holiday starting in 2022. King County’s elected officials did the same a year earlier.
But Seattle’s private sector innovators are moving awfully slow to match that level of recognition. A survey of the area’s largest employers reveals that most are not offering Juneteenth as a companywide paid holiday this year. That list includes Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, and Nordstrom, the last of which added MLK Day to its list of companywide holidays in 2021. “This year, our plans include an emphasis on providing employees with information and resources to enable them to learn more about Juneteenth,” a Nordstrom spokesperson relayed via email, noting that, in some states, the company’s workers will receive holiday compensation.
At a certain Redmond software giant, the focus is similarly educational. “Microsoft recognizes Juneteenth again this year, inviting all employees globally to join in a day of exploration, learning, and engagement on Monday, June 21,” Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, Microsoft’s chief diversity officer, said in a statement. “Recognizing this day with intention allows us to stay connected to the many challenges unresolved, violence unaddressed, and inequities unchanged for the Black and African American community worldwide. Our approach is not to offer a vacation day; but instead use this day to create time and space for employees to better understand critical topics related to race, ethnicity and racial injustice.”
Some companies, however, believe an off day (taken on Friday or Monday this year) is a better way to create that space. “Yes, Juneteenth is a paid holiday at Zillow,” corporate communications manager Kameya Shows-Ciers reported via email. “Employees are encouraged to take the day for volunteerism, education and activism in commemoration of the enactment of the 13th Amendment.”
T-Mobile will also give its employees a vacation day. At Starbucks, stores, distribution centers, and plants will remain open, but hourly workers can earn time-and-a-half pay, and some on salary will get the day off. Others will receive a floating holiday. Similarly, Facebook's new "Choice Days" allow workers at the social media company to use one of two flex days on Juneteenth.
Google favors a "cancel the meetings" approach, one Jeff Bezos backed at Amazon last year and one that would appear to benefit higher-ups at conference tables more than lower level employees. Instead Google will host a two-hour event—hardly the only planned corporate celebration.
Big Tech isn't alone in its hesitancy to give its workers a vacation day. In a survey of 405 companies this year, only 9 percent were observing Juneteenth, compared to 55 percent for MLK Day. But with profits soaring at the Big Five, Seattle's private sector giants are justifiably held to a different standard.