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Juneteenth is not a state-paid holiday in California. Union, workers hope to change that

Avanti Blakney, a California state employee, made sure to have an enjoyable weekend because she knew come Monday, she would not have the luxury of taking the full day off despite the Juneteenth holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas, were finally made aware of their freedom, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by Abraham Lincoln.

President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday in 2021; however, it remains an unpaid state holiday for California state employees.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1655 in 2022, which allowed state employees to elect to use their existing eight hours of holiday credit in lieu of receiving eight hours of personal holiday credit for Juneteenth.

This means state employees are scheduled to work, unless they choose to use their allotted time off to observe the holiday — if they have accrued enough on their leave balance.

“I am immensely proud of the richness of diversity and backgrounds represented in our state and understand the importance of wanting to see one’s own experience reflected in state holidays,” Newsom said in a 2022 news release.

Blakney is exempt from having to use her leave balance because she is a manager.

Still, she said she doesn’t think it’s fair that the state doesn’t recognize Juneteenth, the same way it would observe the Fourth of July.

She called it a “slap in the face”.

“I don’t think it’s fair and the reason why I don’t think it’s fair is because it actually is an Independence Day for our culture. It is a big deal for us,” said Blakney, who is a Black woman. “I’m hopeful that it is a holiday that will be recognized as a state paid holiday.”

State worker union seeks to add Juneteenth holiday

All California state workers are scheduled by default to work.

Employees had to make a decision on whether they wanted to work on the holiday or take it off; Blakney is working intermittently instead of taking the full day.

“It just kind of makes me feel like I’ve always felt like, it’s just one of those things that we have to deal with and experience,” Blakney said.

The labor union for state employees, SEIU Local 1000, has been fighting to make Juneteenth a state paid holiday.

Irene Green, SEIU Local 1000 vice president of bargaining and chief negotiator, told The Sacramento Bee that the union is in contract negotiations with the state.

The current contract expires at the end of June, and Green said making Juneteenth a recognized holiday is among the issues.

“As part of this negotiation process where we bargain on working conditions, pay, and health and welfare, I have submitted a proposal this past Wednesday to the state making Juneteenth a state paid holiday without state workers having to request the day and use leave credits,” Green said.

Green called Juneteenth an opportunity for all Californians to celebrate freedom as a shared value.

Green has been a civil-service worker for 14 years working for the Employment Development Department, as an employment program representative.

“Local 1000 believes the liberation from captivity and the end of slavery is something that every Californian should be able to celebrate, including the state’s civil service, without having to trade personal leave time in return. Juneteenth should not be relegated to a personal holiday.

She hopes the state will recognize “the importance of this proposal” and what it means to thousands of state employees to see one’s own experience reflected in state holidays.

What Juneteenth means for California state employees

Southern California resident Tracie Kimbrough has been a state employee for 10 years. She decided to take a vacation during the Juneteenth celebration.

“I really don’t celebrate the Fourth of July. Like, some people do. I don’t look at it the same way probably because I understand what my ancestors went through,” Kimbrough said. “Fourth of July is just another day to me. That’s no shade, no hate against my country or any of that.”

Juneteenth is bigger than the Fourth of July, Kimbrough said, because it denotes when her ancestors finally got to experience freedom and liberation in America.

Kimbrough is glad that she can take the day off, but said she shouldn’t have to be forced to use her vacation time.

The gesture makes her feel “punished” for being a state employee.

“I feel like many times our state, our governor and our state legislatures forget that state employees are not just numbers on a balance sheet,” Kimbrough said. “It’s almost like they forget, we vote, too. We are citizens of California. We’re Californians, we’re citizens.”

She believes she should be afforded the same privileges any other Californian gets.

“We are people and we are a diverse people and we are their constituents. So often when they talk about their constituency they make policies and laws and procedures, it’s for everyone, except us as state employees,” Kimbrough said.

She doesn’t understand why the holiday would apply to Californians at large, but not state workers.

“We’re the first ones you turn to when it gets tough. Like March of 2020. We were the ones that the governor turned to and asked to work 18 hour days,” Kimbrough said. “We are the ones who put our own lives and the health of our families on the line to do what we can for our other fellow Californians. And yet we are always left out. Why is that?”