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Opinion: The better solution to corporate holidays

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This Friday is Juneteenth, which marks the day in 1865 that news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally made it all the way to Texas. Though it comes before the Fourth of July in our calendar year, Juneteenth celebrates a later and fuller Independence Day, a point of vital — though still incomplete — victory for black Americans' freedom and equality, as the nationwide protests against police brutality demonstrate afresh this year.

a close up of a yellow wall: A calendar. © Illustrated | iStock A calendar.

Those protests have put Juneteenth on corporate radars like never before. Major companies including Google, Nike, Target, and Mastercard have announced they will recognize the holiday, giving many or all employees the day off. But what most of these announcements don't make clear is whether this is a one-time thing. Lyft is an apparent exception — its announcement tweet says Juneteenth is an official holiday "[s]tarting this year" — but The New York Times' tweet says Juneteenth is a paid holiday "this year," and the NFL announcement references the "current climate."

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What about next year and years to come? My guess is if the climate has changed, most of these companies will quietly forget the holiday about justice they presently find so convenient for dress-up wokeness. Some employees may successfully lobby to make the holiday permanent, but many corporations will be resistant for the usual corporate reason: Holidays cost money, and if there's no federal designation or critical mass of workers demanding the day off, it won't be given.

This is a problem for Juneteenth, but it's a bigger problem, too. Americans no longer prioritize a single set of holidays. We largely lack the cultural — and especially the religious and political — unity to celebrate the same things. What if we stopped pretending otherwise?

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Our employment contracts, at the very least, could recognize this reality. The solution is simple and already familiar to corporate HR departments: floating holidays. These are paid days off to be used at workers' discretion, but they differ from vacation in that if you quit with unused floating holidays, there's no payout as with unused vacation days.

Some companies already include a few floating holidays in their benefits package, typically as a supplement to the standard schedule of 10 federal holidays. These extra days are conceived as a blanket accommodation for unusual beliefs. It's not a bad idea, but it's built on an increasingly incorrect assumption: that relatively few employees' beliefs will have them wanting different days off than the standard 10.

Instead of supplementing a fixed, universal schedule, floating holidays should be the entire arrangement. Simply give every employee something like 15 days a year of paid vacation to use to celebrate the days of their choice.

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Calls to move in this direction may be inevitable as present religious trends progress. The United States is moving at a remarkable pace away from being a nation overwhelmingly composed of professing Christians. Religious diversity is increasing, and so too is religious disaffiliation. Granted, the only explicitly religious holiday on the standard list of 10 is Christmas, and much of its American celebration has no connection to Christianity. But it is still easy to imagine larger companies more and more discovering they have atheist or Jehovah's Witness employees who don't want to mark Christmas, alongside Muslim employees who'd rather take the day for Eid al-Fitr or Jewish workers who'd prefer to observe Yom Kippur, alongside observant Christians who want more time off for Christmas celebration. Floating holidays satisfy all of these preferences.

The political advantage to floating holidays is rising, too. The history of Thanksgiving has long put its contemporary celebration under scrutiny. Pacifists like me may not do much for holidays that glorify violence. Celebration of Columbus Day occasions an annual debate about the propriety of commemorating someone who by contemporary accounts and his own journals engaged in dehumanizing cruelty. Now, the timing of the protests sparked by George Floyd's death has likewise occasioned uproar over the neglect of Juneteenth.

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Companies could continue to wade into these debates with often clumsy, performative forays into "woke-washed" marketing and HR policies, courting charges from various corners of tone deafness, insincerity, profiteering, and capitulation (all bad for the bottom line, I might note). Or they could simply announce a total shift to floating holidays, a more laissez-faire approach in which employees can celebrate whatever days they deem ethical or sacred without the interruption of vague corporate bromides about "history" or "diversity" or "love" or "family" or whatever.

This solution won't settle, of course, the larger question of what's worth celebrating. It won't even resolve disagreements about what days deserve public honor as opposed to private observance, especially the honor of recognition by the state. (Incidentally, if any day deserves to be added to the calendar of federal holidays, Juneteenth is it.) And it probably won't feel as immediately gratifying as corporate commitments to forever giving workers time off on June 19.

But it is achievable, realistic, and peaceable, which in our contentious nation is pretty high praise. It also guarantees you can commemorate Juneteenth.

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