When the Palo Alto City Council agreed last year to expand the city's holiday list, its goal was to celebrate diversity, promote inclusion and educate the public on the significance of Juneteenth and the contributions of Dolores Huerta to organized labor.
But as council members mulled specific changes on Oct. 2, they wrestled with an inconvenient realization: Holidays, while valuable, aren't cheap. Staff had estimated that a holiday costs about $735,000 in salary, which does not count the additional costs that are required for holiday pay in departments that remain staffed during the holidays. Creating two new holidays, as some had suggested, would cost about $2 million, according to these estimates.
Citing these costs as well as the prospect of lost productivity, council members rejected on Oct. 2 a recommendation from the Human Relations Commission to add two new paid holidays: Juneteenth and Cesar Chavez Day, which would be combined with Dolores Huerta Day.
Instead, the council voted to recognize Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta with a ceremony but without a day off. Juneteenth, meanwhile, is still likely to become a municipal holiday, though not immediately. Rather than adopting it outright, the council voted 4-3, with Mayor Lydia Kou and council members Ed Lauing and Greg Tanaka dissenting, to discuss the addition of Juneteenth to the holiday schedule with the city's labor unions in forthcoming negotiations.
The vote, much like the discussion, showcased the tension between two council priorities: equity and fiscal prudence. Though everyone agreed that Juneteenth, which recognizes the end of slavery, should be celebrated, some were not convinced that it should be a paid holiday.
Lauing was among them. He said he supports recognizing more days of significance, including Juneteenth, but adding two paid holidays is "out of scale and off the subject."
"You can celebrate a lot of holidays without taking a day off," Lauing said. "In our family, Halloween was a big day, but we worked that day and got off a little bit early and went out with the kids and all that."
He noted that the city already expanded the holiday schedule for its workers last year, when it negotiated new labor contracts that granted each employee one floater holiday. This day, Lauing said, already gives employees total flexibility to celebrate whichever holiday they choose, a policy that he said he supports.
Kou and Tanaka both pointed out that adding holidays would both add costs and hinder the city's ability to conduct business.
"I'm totally (supportive of) trying to celebrate these other holidays, but that doesn't mean we need to put the city more in debt," Tanaka said.
"We're already running a budget deficit, and where will the money come from to do this? Are we going to cut even more serves to provide this? It doesn't seem appropriate," he said.
The effort to recognize more holidays more was spurred by a memo that Kou and Council member Pat Burt issued in spring 2022 as a way to "promote equality, honor diversity and oppose racism."
"Unfortunately, we are too frequently reminded that significant challenges remain in our society, and some of the recent national political environment has undermined our mission of inclusion," the memo stated.
The two council members didn't make any specific recommendations on paid days off but their memo suggested exploring ways to recognize various significant holidays and commemoration days, including the Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
The Human Relations Commission discussed ways to mark these occasions over three meetings last year before issuing its recommendation.
Some council members embraced the opportunity to add Juneteenth to Palo Alto's list of official holidays, consistent with the commission's recommendation. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims was among those who noted that Juneteenth is already a federal holiday and that many other municipalities and private companies currently give their employees a day off on June 19, the day that marks General Gordon Granger's enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas in 1865.
For that reason, the day, is widely viewed as the official end of slavery.
Lythcott-Haims suggested that some city workers might find it odd that they're at work on Juneteenth while other people are off, she suggested.
"I think there's a greater cost to us in ways that are perhaps less easy to measure by not recognizing the holiday," Lythcott-Haims said.
After some debate, she joined Vice Mayor Greer Stone and council members Pat Burt and Vicki Veenker in directing staff to discuss the addition of Juneteenth to the paid holiday list with labor unions in forthcoming negotiations.
Cesar Chavez Day, meanwhile, is now unlikely to make the list of city holidays, notwithstanding its status as a state holiday and the Human Relations Commission's recommendation to give employees a day off on that day.
Rather than creating a paid holiday on March 31, the council opted to pursue some sort of recognition event for both Chavez and Huerta, his partner in creating the United Farm Workers. Burt argued that Huerta, who in 2013 served as a keynote speaker at a Palo Alto ceremony that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, deserves more recognition both locally and across the state.
"I think this is something that's been a real error throughout our state, (which) has rightfully embraced the incredible historic impact of Cesar Chavez and underappreciated that he was a full partner with Dolores Huerta, who is still a fighter today for this," Burt said.
While most of the discussion pertained to adding holidays, whether paid or unpaid, the council took another action on Oct. 2 that modifies an established holiday. The Indigenous People's Day, which was formerly known as Columbus Day, was modified on the city's holiday schedule last year to remove all reference to Christopher Columbus.
Instead, the council agreed at the time to designate the second Monday of October as both Indigenous People's Day and Italian Heritage Day.
This week, however, members agreed to scrap the second designation altogether and to refer to the holiday solely as Indigenous People's Day.
"I love Italy and I love Italian heritage, but I don't think there is a necessity to call that out as an exceptional honoring," said Burt, who pushed for the change. "And really the reason it was called out is because Columbus led not only European modern discovery of the Americas but led a genocide, or the beginning of a genocide, in the Americas."
Stone, who is a history teacher, agreed and questioned the historic association of Columbus with Italian culture. He noted that scholars are debating whether Columbus, who was born in Genoa before Italy was created, should be considered Italian, Portuguese or Spanish.
"He couldn't even write in Italian," Stone said. "So I think we're honoring that day incorrectly.
"Glad to see we're heading into that direction to just call it Indigenous People's Day and really honor the people we should be honoring on that day and not a genocidal maniac," Stone said.