Juneteenth is now a paid state holiday for Georgia employees

Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that makes the federal Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery a paid day off for Georgia employees.

The Republican approved House Bill 1335, which expands the number of paid state holidays observed by Georgia employees from 12 to 13. It updates the law to stay in line with the federal government, which last year designated Juneteenth as a holiday.

The legislation makes official the calendar that Kemp included in a memo to state employees in December outlining the 2022 paid holidays. Because the holiday will fall on a Sunday this year, Georgia will observe Juneteenth on June 20.

Though Kemp signed a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, it wasn’t a paid day off for state employees in 2021. That’s because state law limits state office closures to a dozen public and legal holidays.

Georgia already had 12 in place in 2021. Ten of them are set-in-stone holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Day. Two others are flexible. Both of those honored events glorifying the Confederacy: Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal quietly changed the names of both in 2015 to the less descriptive “state holiday,” and both have since floated to different parts of the calendar. In 2021, they took place on Good Friday and the day after Thanksgiving.

Kemp’s options for 2022 were to either amend the law and add Juneteenth as an official 13th state holiday or drop another holiday, such as Columbus Day. He went the expansion route.

Kemp asked state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, to carry the legislation as a way to honor the veteran lawmaker, who is retiring after serving 48 years in the state House. The longest-serving member of the Legislature, Smyre also sponsored the legislation that established Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday in 1984.

Officially, Juneteenth National Independence Day — which normally falls on June 19 — recognizes the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned they were free, despite the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the Confederate states two years prior.