Holidays and Observances

A guide to U.S. Paid Holidays by Law

Paid holidays are important occasions for employees to rest and recharge.

It is well-known that with a strong baseline for wellness in the workplace, companies enjoy higher levels of employee motivation, engagement, and productivity. Time off makes life better at work.

With issues such as burnout and employee turnover gaining attention, HR and communications leaders are stepping into new zones of leadership to ensure workplace wellness. 

To support your goal for a high-performing workforce, we’ve created a tactical guide to navigating paid holidays by law in the United States, along with actionable recommendations for encouraging wellbeing on these personally meaningful days.

In the United States, federal paid holidays are determined by Congress, with the first four dating back to 1870. Back then and even today, the goal has always been to give time off to federal workers as a sign of respect and gratitude. This government tradition inspired companies to offer paid time off to employees at private companies. However, it is important to note that the decision to offer paid time off benefits is voluntary rather than mandatory for companies. 

According to the Department of Labor, paid holiday benefits are “generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).” The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked. In other words, there are no paid holidays required by law.

Regardless of a company’s official policy, it’s important for people leaders to plan for these days given that so many people are likely to be off. Keep in mind that a well-managed program for paid holidays can help organizations maintain an advantage for retaining and recruiting talent. Time off reminds employees that they are respected, appreciated, and cared about. 

List of U.S. Federal Holidays

As of 2022, there are 11 federal holidays in the United States. Each of these days commemorates an important moment or milestone in the country’s shared national identity and culture. However, there is no law requiring employers to honor the following as days off or paid.

  • New Year's Day (January 1) 
  • The Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Third Monday in January) commemorates and honors an influential figure in the United States Civil Rights movement.
  • Washington's Birthday (Third Monday in February) is also known as Presidents Day and was established as part of a movement to create more three day weekends for Americans.
  • Memorial Day (Last Monday in May) is a day for mourning United States military personnel who have passed away in service.
  • Juneteenth (June 19) commemorates the end of slavery of Black Americans, by executive order. It became a recognized federal holiday in 2021.
  • Independence Day (July 4) is celebrated as the birthdate for American independence, with the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Labor Day (First Monday in September) was established to celebrate the American Labor movement and the achievements of workers. 
  • Columbus Day (Second Monday in October) celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, in 1492. In recent years, many have begun to acknowledge the holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day to honor and pay respect to Native people and cultures.
  • Veterans Day (November 11), distinct from Memorial Day, honors military veterans who have served within the United States Armed Forces.
  • Thanksgiving Day (Fourth Thursday in November) dates back to early human traditions for celebrating healthy harvests. Today, Thanksgiving represents a day to spend time with family and friends.
  • Christmas Day (December 25) commemorates a day of meaningful holiday significance for people around the world. While some people celebrate Christmas Day for religious purposes, others enjoy the celebration with friends and family.

Get pre-written holiday communications from Pyn

For the most part, the United States doesn’t introduce new federal holidays very often — so you shouldn’t expect this list to change frequently. In 2021, Joe Biden was the first president in nearly 40 years to sign into legislation a new U.S. holiday — Juneteenth.

If your company observes paid U.S. holidays, it’s a good idea to share regular reminders around so that employees can make plans accordingly. Given rising remote and hybrid work trends, it’s easy for hardworking people to fall out of the loop. It’s up to HR and communications leaders to ensure that everyone gets the word — and feels encouraged to enjoy their time off.

Creating an Inclusive Paid Holiday Strategy

Over the last several decades, the United States population has grown and evolved. One inevitable outcome has been a greater degree of diversity. That means, at your company, it’s likely that employees are celebrating a range of cultural and religious holidays — or none at all. Everyone is unique with their own background and heritage. Not to mention, diversity, inclusion, and equity are known to be associated with higher company performance. 

One of the challenges of this diversity; however, is creating an inclusive holiday policy that makes everyone feel welcome. Given recent racial tensions and political stressors, it is important for employers to give diversity and inclusion the attention that the topic deserves. HR and communications leaders are in the driver's seat for ensuring a clear strategy.

From a legal perspective, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides employees with protections for sincerely held religious beliefs that require time off from work. Additional religious holidays include Hanukkah, Ramadan, and Diwali, to name a few.

To foster inclusion, many progressive companies provide the ability to float holidays. Other organizations provide flex days. Some companies offer unlimited vacation policies. 

The key is to ensure that employees feel safe and well-supported to embrace their culture. If you’re not sure how to build an inclusive holiday policy, a consultant can help you tailor your corporate strategy to diversity and inclusion needs.

The Importance of Communication regarding Holidays

Did you know that many American workers are afraid to take time off?

It’s understandable, given how much pressure people are under. The last few years have not been easy. But time off is one of the best paths to healing that we have. As an article in Harvard Business Review points out, “resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure.” Now more than ever, sustainable work cultures matter.

It’s up to the employer to provide encouraging, constructive communication around the holidays you choose to offer as paid time off. One suggestion is to create personalized, tailored outreach to employees using your HRIS data. Pyn has 60+ holiday related communications to help HR and internal comms leaders create more on-point, effective outreach.

Communicating about the holidays requires a balanced approach. The right messaging will be informative, encouraging, inclusive, and helpful. Not to mention, the holidays are a time for celebration. 

As HR and communications leaders, you are in a powerful position to influence your company culture for the better. What you say and how you say it matters. Pyn can help.