Why one health system is eliminating the Christmas Eve holiday in favor of Juneteenth

A woman prays during a OneRace March on Atlanta prayer service and march in response to recent racially violence on June 19, 2020, in Atlanta.
A woman prays during a OneRace March on Atlanta prayer service and march in response to recent racially violence on June 19, 2020, in Atlanta. | John Bazemore, Associated Press

The largest hospital system in Georgia sparked controversy last week when it announced that it would no longer include Christmas Eve on the company holiday calendar and recognize Juneteenth, instead.

“Beginning in 2024, Juneteenth (June 19) will be added to the holiday calendar and Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) will be removed. As with other observed holidays, we will offer holiday pay to staff working on Juneteenth,” wrote Dr. Joon Sup Lee, the CEO of Emory Healthcare, in a memo to staff members.

The decision led to pushback, including from employees who had fought for recognition of Juneteenth. But health system leaders have said it wasn’t possible to add a new paid holiday to the company’s calendar without removing one.


What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, as the Deseret News previously reported.

“Juneteenth, which is also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers told slaves in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished nationwide,” the Deseret News reported.

Although it’s been celebrated for more than 150 years, Juneteenth has only recently become a talking point nationwide.

Many states, including Utah, moved to make it an official public holiday after Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in 2020.

“Public awareness of Juneteenth grew in 2020 amid nationwide protests after the police killings of several Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. President Joe Biden signed the legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday in June 2021,” according to Pew Research Center.

Today, at least 28 states give state workers a paid day off for Juneteenth, Pew reported.

Juneteenth holiday controversy

In his memo to employees about the holiday change, the Emory Healthcare CEO noted that the new policy resulted from conversations with employees about the holiday benefits package. He said he hoped the shift would help create an environment of “true belonging.”

“We hope this will allow for celebration, reflection and education,” Lee wrote.

But some employees are frustrated that the new Juneteenth holiday came at the expense of Christmas Eve.

“Something that should be an extremely joyful and collective celebration has become another reminder of how our Black colleagues can’t have anything without sacrifice,” an anonymous Emory Healthcare employee said to Atlanta News First. “This is not what we have been pushing for. We thought Juneteenth was being added to the holiday calendar.”

Lee and other executives likely anticipated such pushback. In his memo, the CEO noted that Emory Healthcare already offers three more paid holidays than most other health systems in the Atlanta area, noting that adding a 10th paid holiday would strain the system.

“To minimize impact to patient care, we will not be adding another paid holiday to our calendar,” Lee wrote.

When the new policy takes effect in 2024, Emory Healthcare employees who would like to have Christmas Eve off of work will need to use paid time off.