Enjoy Washington’s Birthday and a Day Off (With Pay)

Federal employees did not always get paid on a federal holiday. And, at first, only those employees who worked in Washington, DC got paid on federal holidays.

Washington’s Birthday become a legal holiday on January 31, 1879 when Congress added February 22nd to the list of holidays to be observed by federal employees in the District of Columbia. Perhaps federal employees at the time were happy to get the day off but their elation may have been tempered because the new law did not require that they get paid for that day. Some of these federal workers apparently received pay on that day while others did not. Apparently, no grievance procedure had been established yet.

But, in 1885, Congress apparently decided to pay federal employees on federal holidays and passed legislation to that effect. In another act of generosity, Congress also made federal holidays applicable to all federal government employees — not just those in Washington, DC.

So many federal employees were absent on some common days of celebration that, in 1870, Congress followed the lead of states surrounding Washington, DC and formally declared New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day as federal holidays in the District of Columbia.

For those who are stridently purist about their holiday celebrations, George Washington was actually born in Virginia on February 11, 1731 even though we now recognize his birthday as February 22nd. When he was born, the Julian calendar was used. In 1752, Britain and its colonies changed to the Gregorian calendar, probably because the Julian calendar introduced an error of one day every 128 years. Under the Gregorian calendar,  Washington’s birthday would be on February 22, 1732.

But, whichever calendar and day you wish to use, we do not celebrate Washington’s birthday on that date anyway. George Washington’s Birthday is celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. Monday, February 17, 2014 is now the holiday celebrated by closing the federal government.  It is one of eleven permanent holidays that have been established by Congress.

And, even if some do not know or care why it is a holiday, it is also the day for many sales in stores around the country and the malls are always open. Hopefully, our school system takes the time to at least explain who George Washington was and why we celebrate his birthday because of his contributions to creating the United States of America.

The term “federal holiday” only applies to the federal government and the District of Columbia. Contrary to what many may believe, Congress has never declared a national holiday binding in all states. Each state decides its own legal holidays.

Before 1971, Washington’s Birthday was one of nine federal holidays that were celebrated on specific dates appropriate to the occasion that was being commemorated. This meant that the holidays fell on different days of the week each year. To remedy this problem and, more importantly, to give people more long weekends off regardless of the date of the celebratory event, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill. This act moved most federal holidays to Mondays. Congress voted to move three existing holidays to Mondays and threw in another federal holiday in for good measure by making Columbus Day a holiday to be celebrated on the second Monday of October.

During the Congressional debate on this new concept, it was proposed that Washington’s Birthday be renamed Presidents’ Day to honor the birthdays of both Washington (February 22) and Lincoln (February 12) (although Lincoln’s birthday was never an official federal holiday).

The “President’s day” name change was not incorporated into the law but that became the most commonly used name after the bill became effective in 1971.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47