PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An effort to give Providence city workers a paid day off for Juneteenth, a holiday honoring the end of slavery, is receiving pushback from some city council members.
Juneteenth is short for June 19, the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure slaves were freed. It’s considered the longest-running African-American holiday.
A new ordinance discussed by the City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday would add Juneteenth to the list of paid holidays for Providence city employees, including police and fire, communications, and union workers.
Shawndell Burney-Speaks, a senior advisor for Mayor Jorge Elorza, testified at Tuesday’s meeting that community members have been calling for Juneteenth to become a paid holiday for more than a year.
The holiday gained significant attention in 2020 during the social justice movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and many companies added it to their list of paid holidays for workers. National Grid announced Tuesday it would make Juneteenth a company holiday for all its employees in the United States starting this year.
“It is very significant in the time that we’re facing right now in our nation,” said Shane Lee, a community member who spoke in support of the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. “Because of the division that we actually see in the city and on the state level and on the national level.”
But some committee members took issue with the costs associated with adding another paid city holiday.
“It’s an outright request to inflate our budget,” Jo-Ann Ryan, chairwoman of the finance panel, said. “Not that this isn’t a noble cause.”
Finance Director Sara Silveria estimated the fiscal impact of providing holiday pay to city employees would be about $303,000, since essential workers such as police and firefighters would be paid at their holiday rate.
But city treasurer Jim Lombardi, who is also the council chief of staff, said the cost would actually be much higher, since the fiscal analysis didn’t include the cost of giving all city workers the day off.
“There’s a cost of people not coming in,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi and Ryan estimated adding another paid holiday would cost approximately $460,000, or potentially more.
“How are we going to look to the taxpayers of the city of Providence, saying, ‘OK, we’re adding another holiday. We’re giving the city employees another day off’?” Councilman Nicholas Narducci asked. “I don’t see that flying too good with my constituents.”
Some suggested adding Juneteenth and removing another holiday on the existing list in an effort to make the change revenue-neutral.
Council Majority Leader James Taylor suggested the matter should be collectively bargained with the city’s various employee unions.
“The financial investment cannot always be justified by a monetary [return on investment], but sometimes it’s the collective goodwill and morale of a people who feel seen and celebrated, and the ensuing productivity and work as part of our municipal collective,” Lee said. “This will create a platform by which we can begin the healing work of unity so desperately needed.”
The item was ultimately continued, giving the city treasurer and the mayor’s administration more time to work to reduce the cost associated with the proposal.
“I understand all the points made and I’m still hopeful that we’ll still be able to work something out in order to make this happen for the significance of the holiday, whatever that may mean,” Lee said.
It’s unclear whether the issue will be worked out in time for this year’s Juneteenth, which takes place next Saturday. The paid holiday would be observed a day earlier, on Friday, June 18.
“We’re going to do some work on this and try to get it over the end line,” Ryan said.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.