WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to change paid holidays for County employees. They added Juneteenth and took away Presidents Day. But the decision was not an easy one for some of the commissioners.
They mostly agreed that the County should recognize Juneteenth, June 19, as a paid holiday, but they did not agree on whether it should be an additional paid holiday or in exchange for another one. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in America.
It came down to money. Sheena Schmutz, the County’s chief human resources officer, said that adding an extra paid holiday to the County’s 10 paid holidays would cost $168,969 for actual work. But when you include off-work time, the total cost to the County would be $828,539.
Larry Burks, Wichita NAACP president, asked commissioners if the County has sufficient funds for that. Commissioners asked Lindsay Rousseau, the County’s chief financial officer, how much the County is in deficit for 2024.
“We have looked at the forecast … and updated it,” she said. “We have not yet presented it formally to you, but that number that you had seen that was $10 million in 2024 is now $9 million, so still a substantial deficit in the County’s property tax-supported funds.”
Commissioner Lacey Cruse said the County should pay for the extra holiday.
“When we talk about people feeling included and people feeling like they belong in an organization, you can’t put a cost on that,” she said.
Burks asked when the commissioners would decide about Juneteenth, and Commission Chair David Dennis said it would be happening at Wednesday’s meeting.
“We would like to recommend very strongly that the County adopt this as one of the additional holidays and include that as a paid holiday for our County employees and not have that one that’s going to be substituted for another,” Burks said. “So instead of having 10, we recommend that you allow it to be the 11th paid holiday supported by the County. That’s our position as the NAACP.”
Survey of County workers
The County had surveyed employees about the holidays. Schmutz went over the results.
Cruse asked Schmutz to give the results of a survey of County employees. Schmutz said the first question asked if the employee supported recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Almost half of the County’s employees responded. Of those, 82.96% said yes.
The second question asked employees what existing paid holiday they would be willing to give up if the County budget could not afford the 11th holiday. Almost 58% said none, 19% said Presidents Day, 11% said Martin Luther King Junior Day and 4% said the day after Thanksgiving.
Cruse then asked what Schmutz had learned about other places’ paid holidays.
Schmutz said the City of Wichita recognizes 12 holidays, including Juneteenth. Johnson County recognizes 10 holidays, including Juneteenth and not Presidents Day, and it has an additional three floating paid holidays. The State of Kansas gives 10 paid holidays and does not include Juneteenth or Presidents Day, but one of the 10 days is a discretionary holiday.
The County’s options
The commissioners said they had several options: no change to the current 10 holidays, pay to add Juneteenth as an 11th holiday, substitute a holiday for Juneteenth, or adopt a floating holiday. But Schmutz said the floating holiday would not work.
“Our system is not set up at this time to allow for that,” she said. “We preload our holidays … and I think it would take some time to get adjustments made.”
Cruse said that if the County is going to accept diversity, equity and inclusion awards, it needs to take definitive action.
“I think it’s important that this County commission stops talking about things and starts doing things that are action-oriented, that says to every single employee that we value your opinion, we value you as humans,” she said. “We want to recognize the fact that freedom isn’t free, and this community and this county and this whole entire nation was built on the backs of slaves.”
Cruse then motioned for the County to adopt Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Commissioner Sarah Lopez seconded it. Cruse and Lopez thought the extra paid holiday would help the County keep and attract workers.
“We are faced with some serious challenges going into next year with a pretty significant deficit that we need to look at,” Lopez said. “However, we’re also trying to prioritize what’s going to make us a better County to work for. We want people to want to work at Sedgwick County, and I think this is another tool that we can use to say that we do appreciate our diversity and we really want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be inclusive to everybody.”
Commissioner Jim Howell said he prefers offering employees a floating holiday and expressed concern that the commission did not have all the information it needed to make a decision. He also said the two-question survey was flawed. Howell said any employee would say yes to being offered an extra day off with pay. He said the employees should have been given other additional questions.
“I can think of all kinds of things that people want to take a day off to value and celebrate something that’s special to them if it’s their culture or their religion or all kinds of things,” he said. “We talk about being inclusive and diverse and respecting people’s ideology. At the end of the day, I wish employees had some discretion on which day they take off.”
But Howell said that if the commission had to make an immediate decision, he would advocate for replacing Presidents Day with Juneteenth. He acknowledged the importance of Juneteenth and added that June might be more desirable for workers to enjoy a day off than February.
He then made a substitute motion that the County replace Presidents Day with Juneteenth. Chairman Dennis seconded it.
“I am fiscally conservative, and I am not going to add almost a million dollars in expense to the County,” Dennis said.
Commissioner Pete Meitzner also spoke in favor of offering employees a floating holiday.
Schmutz said she would have to talk to the stakeholders who do the programming to see what it would take to add a floating holiday.
“I can say off the top of my head that I know we’ve spoke to some departments about a floating holiday,” she said. “There’s concerns about scheduling as well as operating on a small crew is somewhat difficult.”
Howell again said that he wished they had more data before deciding on the issue.
“I am concerned that we’re going to do this because it is popular, and again, I support the idea of taking Juneteenth off. It’s a great idea,” he said. “But I’m also concerned that we’re just doing this because it’s convenient. We’ve not done our due diligence to find out all the other options we should be looking at and really ask the employees maybe a more robust set of questions to get more idea from employees what they would rather see us do.”
Cruse disagreed with Howell.
“This is neither popular nor convenient. This is an important step in our, the history of our nation,” she said. “This is a huge monumental thing that is not a popularity contest, nor is it something this County should do because it’s a convenient thing to do. Those comments are blatantly insensitive.”
After the discussion, the commission voted unanimously to approve replacing Presidents Day with Juneteenth.
“I don’t think this conversation is over necessarily,” Lopez said. “I would love to see a floating holiday and what that could look like.”
Cruse then asked if the commission could change the verbiage of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Dennis pointed out that Columbus Day is not a paid holiday.
The County counselor said the verbiage was not part of the paid holiday topic and there should be a motion to add an off-agenda item.
Cruse said it could wait until the next meeting.