Amid anti-racism protests, Charlotte businesses make Juneteenth a paid holiday

Spurred by nationwide conversations on racism, some Charlotte businesses are giving their employees a day off Friday to honor Juneteenth.

Also known as Freedom Day, Juneteenth falls on June 19 and commemorates the end of slavery. The holiday marks the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War was over and all slaves in Texas were free. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery two and a half years prior, few Union troops had made it to the remote state to enforce the edict.

In the past week, Charlotte-based businesses and organizations ranging from the Carolina Panthers to LendingTree have announced that they will close Friday to observe the holiday. Others, such as Truist and Truliant, have said they will close early.

These announcements come during a national reckoning over racism and inequality. Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., Black Lives Matter protests have swept across the nation, and Black people have started to speak out on racism in the workplace and everyday life.

Sherri Thomas, the chief human resources and organizational development officer of Truliant Federal Credit Union, said the current “social climate” prompted her company to take action this year. In the past, Truliant has not closed early for Juneteenth.

“There is a heightened sense of awareness,” Thomas said. “We want to be an active participant in the movement and not just a bystander.”

Kenneth Schorr, the executive director of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, also pointed to the national conversation on racism as the catalyst for his organization’s decision to give employees Juneteenth off this year for the first time.

“When the police violence came so forcefully as a matter of public attention, it affected our staff a lot. It brought up all the stresses that our black clients and black staff have to live with,” Schorr said. “[Recognizing Juneteenth] was an important, positive statement that is part of a larger demonstration of our agency to work toward racial reconciliation.”

Some organizations, including the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, said designating Juneteenth a paid holiday was a natural decision considering their organization’s mission and advocacy work. Anthony Jones, the chief operations officer of Thompson, a nonprofit that provides clinical services to families, said that was also the case for his company.

“We, as an organization, offer services to kids and families that experience a lot of social racism and the impacts of it, the trauma behind it,” Jones said. “We want to make sure the work that we’re doing with our client base is also apparent with our employee base.”

The move to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday will be permanent for some. Jones said Thompson will continue to give employees the day off in future years, and Thomas said Truliant will close early for future Juneteenths.

Others are in the process of deciding how they will recognize Juneteenth and other holidays in the future. LendingTree Chief Human Resources Officer Jill Olmstead said her company will be reconsidering its slate of paid holidays, a discussion that could touch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, among other holidays.

The recognition of Juneteenth as a paid holiday is an important, but small, step for companies to take, according to activists.

“It would be great to have a paid holiday added to the list of holidays,” said Southern Anti-Racism Network Board Chair Theresa El-Amin. “But I would say it’s more important for companies to look at their hiring practices, their promotion practices, and how people are treated and see if there’s any implicit bias in their practices.”

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that companies hoping to promote racial equality in the workplace need to also examine their workplace culture and practices, which may inhibit Black workers from ascending the ranks or being hired in the first place.

“While making Juneteenth a paid holiday is important, if organizations stop there, then they’re probably not going to see a lot of progress,” Wingfield said. “A lot of issues that Black workers face in the workplace setting have to do with hiring, with advancement, and with the culture they encounter in the spaces.

Celebrate Black freedom on Juneteenth in Charlotte with events, virtual activities

Several companies said that recognizing Juneteenth is part of broader efforts to address diversity issues in their workplace. Schorr, for example, said the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is examining both its internal processes and its outreach efforts to members of the Black community.

Still, some companies have decided not to give their workers paid time off on Juneteenth. Bank of America, for example, will remain open to provide “ongoing, essential services,” though employees may use a personal day to take time off, according to spokesperson Mark Pipitone. Similarly, Wells Fargo employees wishing to take Friday off must use personal holidays, according to spokesperson Josh Dunn.

Olmstead said part of the reason why it was important for LendingTree to give its employees Juneteenth off is to set an example for other companies to do the same.

“I do hope that it sends a signal not only to our employees but to other companies to join us and do this,” Olmstead said. “I hope we can be one of many companies that are really encouraging other businesses to join in on these conversations and make everybody’s workplace better.”