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Taking a Break – A Primer on Legal and Other Holidays

Holidays. Just about everyone loves them. They give us a chance to pause, to reflect on and honor the significance of the day. Most local governments observe significant holidays by closing their doors or cutting back on their services in order to provide time off for their employees. The state has established a list of legal holidays that it observes, but must a local government follow the same holiday schedule? What about floating holidays and unpaid religious holidays? What effect does a legal holiday have on local government operations? This blog tackles these questions and more.

Legal Local Government Holidays

RCW 1.16.050(1) establishes 11 legal holidays that are observed by all state agencies:

  • Jan 1, New Year's Day;
  • The third Monday of January, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day;
  • The third Monday of February, Presidents' Day;
  • The last Monday of May, Memorial Day,
  • June 19, Juneteenth;
  • July 4, Independence Day;
  • The first Monday in September, Labor Day;
  • November 11, Veterans' Day;
  • The fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day, and the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day (known as Native American Heritage Day); and
  • December 25, Christmas Day. 

Many — probably most — local governments adopt this same legal holiday schedule (and give staff either paid or unpaid time off for the day), but they are not required to do so. Instead, under RCW 1.16.050(6), the legislative body of each local government may choose to adopt more or fewer legal holidays through their ordinances, resolutions, personnel policies, or union contracts. For example, Seattle has designated Indigenous Peoples' Day (second Monday in October) as a legal city holiday, and added it to the list of legal parking holidays the city observes. King County also includes Indigenous People’s Day on its 2023 holidays schedule. And, even if a jurisdiction does adopt the state schedule, it is not required to make those holidays paid holidays for its workers.

The “Floating” Holiday

What about the “floating holiday”? RCW 1.16.050(2) gives state employees one additional paid holiday, or day off, per calendar year. This additional day off, sometimes referred to as a “floating” holiday, is taken on a date determined by the employee after consultation with their employer pursuant to an adopted policy. Of course, such floating holidays do not otherwise have any impact on the operations of the agency.

While the text of RCW 1.16.050(2) seemingly makes the paid “floating holiday” a requirement for local governments, it is not. Instead, the Washington Attorney General’s Office, in AGO 1978 No. 7, has interpreted another section of RCW 1.16.050 — subsection (6) — as authorizing local governments to not provide the “floating holiday” to its employees if labor agreements or adopted ordinances or resolutions state otherwise.

Thus, while local jurisdictions may adopt the same holiday schedule as the state, including the one “floating” holiday, they are not required to do so. Further, jurisdictions are not limited in only offering one floating holiday. In 2022, Tukwila passed Ordinance No. 2670, indicating employees are entitled to two paid floating holidays each calendar year.

Unpaid Holidays for Reason of Faith or Conscience

Under RCW 1.16.050(3), local government employees are entitled to two unpaid holidays each calendar year “for a reason of faith or conscience or an organized activity conducted under the auspices of a religious denomination, church, or religious organization.”

Each employee may select the days to be absent from work after consulting with their employer. MRSC offers a model policy for two unpaid religious holidays that can be adopted wholesale into existing policies or can be used as a foundation for developing a more individualized policy.

In giving permission for an employee to take an unpaid holiday, a local government should be consistent with its personnel guidelines and local ordinances or resolutions. Permission can be denied if the absence would impose an “undue hardship” (defined in chapter 82-56 WAC) or if the employee is needed to maintain public order. For example, the Clark Regional Wastewater District allows employees to take up to two unpaid holidays for a reason of faith or conscience, provided the employee submits the request a minimum of four weeks prior to the requested date and the employee’s absence on that date will not “unduly disrupt operations or … impose an undue hardship.”

What Happens When a Legal Holiday Occurs During a Workweek?

Here are a few examples of how a holiday can impact the normal business of governing:

  • For federal overtime purposes, when determining if an employee has worked over 40 hours, only hours actually worked count, but paid holidays do not (nor do vacation or sick leave hours). See 29 C.F.R. § 779.18(2).
  • Local policies or union contracts may provide for premium pay (sometimes double or triple time) for workers required to work on a holiday. Some allow an employee required to work on a legal holiday to take that time off on other days, as they may choose.
  • If a regular meeting date falls on a holiday, RCW 42.30.070 requires that the meeting be held the next business day.
  • A response to a public record request is due in five business days, excluding the first day and including the last, unless the last day is a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, in which case that day is also excluded. See RCW 1.12.040.

Confusion can also happen when holidays occur on the weekend, and the question arises as to when the local government will observe the holiday. To remedy this, Vancouver’s Municipal Code Sec. 2.40.020 specifies which holidays the city will observe as well as noting that if a date “falls on a Sunday, it shall be observed on the following Monday [or if it] falls on a Saturday, it shall be observed on the preceding Friday.”

Portland’s Holidays webpage addresses a variety of questions, including how the city observes holidays that fall on the weekend, holiday leave for job-sharing or part-time employees, personal holidays, religious observances, and more.

Recognizing Other Dates

Under RCW 1.16.050(7) the state lists several dates for recognition, but these are not considered legal holidays and have no impact on daily operations. This includes dates to celebrate famous individuals, such as activist Cesar Chavez (March 31); to recognize veterans, such as Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (July 27); or to mark important national events, such as Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

Local governments may also choose to recognize additional dates through a variety of ways, with the added benefit that this may improve an agency’s efforts in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). In 2022, Issaquah adopted an extensive religious and cultural calendar that was meant to help city departments avoid scheduling public meetings or events during the holidays listed. Similarly, Louisville, Colorado offers a list of events the city plans to recognize and celebrate in 2023 as part of its DEIB efforts.

Conclusion

For the purpose of keeping the public well informed, a local government agency should make holiday schedules, and whether they impact government services, publicly available. An agency should also keep its HR policies updated so that employees understand which dates include paid time off and which may be important for consideration when scheduling public events and meetings.



MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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