The declaration of Juneteenth as a holiday caused some discord among Scotts Bluff County Commissioners and county officials over the number of holidays that county employees are allowed throughout the year.
Four out of five commissioners discussed the topic during the Scotts Bluff County Commissioners meeting on Monday, June 21. Commission chair Ken Meyer had been absent from the meeting, suddenly having fallen ill just prior to the meeting. Scotts Bluff County Commissioners seem poised not to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, despite the state and federal governments recently declaring it as a holiday.
The subject of holiday closures had already been an issue described by Commissioner Mark Harris as a “burr under his saddle” in August 2020 when he questioned Register of Deeds Jean Bauer about offices closing at noon on Christmas Eve during budget discussions. Bauer and County Assessor Amy Ramos said then that they followed policy, with President Donald Trump having declared Christmas Eve a federal holiday and Gov. Pete Ricketts following suit, declaring it a state holiday.
Last week, Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, was recognized for the first time as a federal holiday. The name stems from the end of slavery for the last slaves in Texas, on June 19, 1865, nearly two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared “all slaves are free.”
Some of the conversation during the commissioner’s meeting stated that President Joe Biden had issued an executive order declaring Juneteenth as a federal holiday. However, Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Thursday, June 17, after the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the bill Tuesday and the U.S. House approved it Wednesday. With Biden signing the bill into law on Thursday afternoon, at about 1:30 p.m. MT, it became effective immediately. With June 19 on a Saturday, the holiday was recognized on Friday.
Even before Biden signed the bill into law, local, state and federal offices were making preparations to close, sending out news alerts planning for closures on Friday.
On the federal level, the Office of Personnel Management sent out tweets and other notices Thursday morning that most federal employees would be off in observation of the holiday. Also on June 17, at about 11:55 a.m., Ricketts’ office sent out a notice that “in expectation of federal legislation to be signed shortly and in accordance with state law,” that state offices and teammates (state employees) would be granted a day of leave. The email also included a proclamation declaring Juneteenth a state holiday.
On the state and federal level, there were some functions that also were not able to close. For example, the Nebraska Judicial Branch advised that although it recognized the holiday, it would remain open due to previously scheduled trials, hearings, and other obligations. Its employees would be given an alternate day of leave to observe. All district court, county court and probation offices remained open to provide essential court services.
Across the state, county officials were advised to consult their personnel manuals and to consult with their county attorneys and other county officials. In an email from Nebraska Association of County Officials (NACO), sent at 12 p.m. (MT) on June 17, board chairs, county attorneys and other officials were advised about the passage of the act and two state statutes oft-cited in personnel policies, Nebraska State 84-1001 (3) and Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-2221, were outlined.
“I encourage you to review your personnel policies but more importantly, discuss this issue with your county attorney, if you have not already done so,” the email signed by NACO Legal Counsel Elaine Menzel said.
During Monday’s meeting, Lisa Rien, human resources director, told the commissioners that she had consulted with legal counsel with Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association (NIRMA) and had been advised: “Her first comment was holidays are not required by law. This is a benefit you give your employees.”
In Scotts Bluff County's personnel manual, she said, the county does not list Juneteenth as a holiday. Commissioners could recognize it as a holiday with a resolution at a future meeting, but “Pam was confident in saying that just because the state or governor declares Juneteenth as a holiday does not require or obligate the county to also declare it as a holiday.”
Scotts Bluff County’s personnel manual lists specific holidays in its manual and says its policy is “to comply with legal state holidays as listed in Nebraska statutes.” Scotts Bluff County Attorney Dave Eubanks said that the reference to statute refers to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-2221, which observes the federal holidays, but also includes the day after Thanksgiving and also Arbor Day as state holidays. The statute also includes this wording: “...And all days declared by law or proclamation of the President or Governor to be holidays.”
With the addition of Juneteenth, there are 11 federal holidays. The other federal holidays are: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or President’s Day (President George Washington’s Birthday), Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Though some on the personnel board had expressed that they viewed the county as an extension of the state, Rien said counsel disagreed, and the county is a separate political subdivision.
“Most of you know my opinion on the story,” Harris said, questioning a need for another holiday to be added for county employees. “And that’s — When is enough, enough?”
For the commissioners, wording has apparently caused some discourse, such as with Juneteenth being declared a holiday. With declarations of holidays by the president or the governor, county officials have recognized those holidays as well, at least in the past.
Commissioners don't agree with that position.
Harris said, "As we know since I’ve been here anyway, we’ve had Christmas Eve at least once, if not twice; a president’s funeral, which we ended up with a paid holiday,” Harris said.
Harris said that federal and state employees receive more holidays than those employed at banks. According to the Federal Reserve, it recognizes the same 11 holidays recognized federally. Juneteenth is one of those holidays. Banks are not required to be closed on the holidays designated by the U.S. Federal Reserve System, but usually are.
In advising commissioners, Eubanks said they could change the commissioners manual, removing the references to state holidays and Nebraska statute. Harris said he would propose such at a future meeting so that commissioners are in control of the holidays that they feel employees should be off.
“...What I think we should do is certainly change that beginning language in the personnel manual so that we can be the ones that make the decision, not the president, not the governor,” he said.
County officials spoke on the topic, addressing that some of the functions of their office are not able to continue due to state office closures. In the treasurer’s office, Treasurer Heather Hauschild said, driver’s license services are not available because the DMV is closed. Auto registration assistance is also not available, which she said impacts the office. Register of Deeds Jean Bauer said that electronic filings make up the bulk of her office’s work and those services are not available, as well as many businesses advising that they are closed on Juneteenth. She said one provider advised three weeks prior that they would be closed for the Juneteenth holiday.
Though the courthouse remained open this year, Eubanks said, in future years, the state court sysem is expected to recognize the holiday and be closed. That will cause a disparity if the county chooses to remain open on Juneteenth, as county court employees and other state employees in the judicial system would be off. The courthouse would close on that day, he said, while the administration office would remain open.
Conversation on the topic was extensive, with officials asked if they intended to reimburse employees for the day by paying holiday pay or to provide a “float day.” Depending on the office, there were different approaches that officials said that they planned on taking. Commissioner Charlie Knapper questioned Bauer about plans to pay her employees holiday pay for working the holiday, saying that it was voters' “right to know how you’re going to spend your budget money — if you’re going to pay time and half for a holiday that came out of nowhere. If you’re going to give holiday pay for a whim.” He later corrected himself and said it was “not on a whim” but that he thought officials needed to be on recorded saying how they planned to handle the issue because they were using taxpayer monies.
For the most part, officials seemed to be looking to commissioners for direction on whether it would be recognized as a holiday, before deciding how to address it because payroll was due. Officials with small offices, like the assessor’s office and district court’s office, indicated that it would be difficult to give employees “float days,” so they were more inclined to give holiday pay. Bauer said that she had the money in her budget, and as a small office, she had planned to pay her employees holiday pay.
Harris said he had previously asked how much it cost the county “whenever we do one of these (holidays) and I think it’s 30 some thousand dollars.” He asked Rien to give more specific numbers at a future meeting. It was not clear from the discussion if that estimate referred to costs from closures or from giving essential employees, such as law enforcement officers, additional pay for working on holidays.
Where all the commissioners stood specifically on recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday was not entirely clear, though the discussion seemed to lean toward most of them not wishing to recognize it as a holiday. Harris stated he didn’t want to recognize “another paid holiday” because he didn’t think it was fair to taxpayers. Knapper was the only commissioner who vocally said that he thought that the holiday should be recognized, describing it as an important day in history.
The issue is expected to be on the commissioner’s meeting agenda for the July 6 meeting.