In a few days, it will be Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, January 15th. And next Monday, January 21, 2008, is officially recognized as the federal holiday as the third Monday in January. It is also a state recognized holiday in Connecticut as well the other 49 states, in some fashion or another. So, if you work for a federal or state employer in human resources, or otherwise, you are going to have a day off (obviously, our state police and others never get a "day off").
Connecticut’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission has historically had a ceremony that commemorates the day. That continues this year and information regarding the ceremony can be found here and also here. The Commission receives counsel and support by the CHRO and the statutory basis for the Commission is found here.
The birthday has lots of symbolism in the labor and employment world. Much of today’s civil rights laws have their foundation in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I won’t turn this into a history discussion or debate, but suffice to say that King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech and his actions both before and afterwards played a major role in the passage of this bill.
If you are a private employer, odds have become greater over the years that you give your employees the day off. A survey in 2007 reported that nearly one-third of large employers give the day off. I would expect a similar number this year.
So, the obvious question that I’m often asked is — if it is a state and federal holiday, why do I have to work? The answer is fairly simple, however. The United States (unlike some other countries) does not have any "national" holidays. Just because Connecticut or the United States recognizes the day as a legal holiday, employers are free to choose whether to remain open or closed. In case you are curious, the State Department, of all places, as an interesting summary of each of these ten federal days on their website. (In 2009, federal employees in the Washington D.C. area, will also get off January 20, 2009 as a result of "Inauguration Day.")
So, in essence, what the federal and state government does is merely a guide to private employers. . But if employers did not give off certain days, it is a sure bet that employees would flock to employers that did. It would be hard to imagine an employer surviving with a motto of "No Paid Holidays! in their recruiting materials.
Ultimately, I believe that designating MLK Day as a holiday for private employers — as with other federal holidays — is a decision best left up to employers. In essence, let the marketplace decide. Certainly, giving the day off allows an employer to tout its commitment to diversity and civil rights with a little more force (though I’m hardly suggesting that giving the day off is a prerequisite for doing so.) Some employers will instead fashion a compromise by giving employees some "floating holidays" for days such as this.
Whatever your company decides, it’s a good idea to explain to your employees the reasons for your decision. Feel free to post your company’s decision below to give our readers some perspectives on the day.