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Holiday Questions
Do Most People Get MLK Day Off?
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Kayla Heisler
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If you’re looking forward to having a day off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, double check that your employer has actually given you the day off! 

Holiday schedules vary from company to company to ensure that the needs of the business and those it serves are accommodated. Because some positions require at least a few employees to be present or on-call at all times, some businesses provide employees who work on holidays with overtime or double time pay as an alternative to giving them a paid day off.

Who Gets MLK Day Off

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday. Though many companies and organizations opt to give their employees the day off, it isn’t mandatory for most workplaces to follow this protocol. Only government employees legally have to be given the day off, and the Fair Labor Standards Act does not mandate that employers pay their employees when they do not work. One exception to this rule is the population of employees who work under collective bargaining agreements, as they may be entitled to the time off if such condition is written into their contract. The stock market also closes on MLK Day.

According to Bloomberg Law, 42 percent of employers in the United States gave employees the day off in 2018. Civil and nonprofit organizations such as universities and hospitals were the most likely to give employees the day off for the holiday; 72 percent gave them the day off with pay. Lastly, 33 percent of non-manufacturing businesses and only 16 percent of manufacturing businesses gave employees the day off.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics the reports that full-time employees in the United States are given an average of 7.6 paid holidays each year. Employees who work in professional and technical fields received the highest average with an average of 8.5 days, and blue-collar and service employees received the fewest with an average of 7 days.

History of MLK Day

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist and minister who championed nonviolence and civil disobedience in order to advance civil rights. In 1955, he led a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama to protest racial segregation practices present on their transit system. Dr. King helped organize the 1963 March on Washington that was held to promote economic and civil rights for Black Americans, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of January in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which is on January 15. January 15 is the earliest Monday the day may fall on, and January 21 is the latest. Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced the legislation to make King’s birthday a federal holiday four days after King was killed in 1968, but MLK Day didn’t become an official holiday until decades later in 1986 after being signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. Two arguments that were made against making it a federal holiday were that it would be too costly, and honoring someone who had never held public office by creating a federal holiday went against tradition.

However, MLK Day was observed by all 50 states for the first time only in 2000. Not every state chose to observe the holiday, including South Carolina, which was the last state to acknowledge the day as a paid holiday for state workers. Some states choose to combine the holiday with another holiday or celebrate the day under a different name. For instance, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas combine MLK Day with a day honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19. Arizona and New Hampshire combine the holiday with Civil Rights Day, and Idaho has celebrated Idaho Human Rights Day in lieu of MLK Day since 2006.

Ways to Celebrate

If you’re part of the lucky 42 percent who does have MLK Day off this year, here are a few different ways you may choose to celebrate:

1. Visit a national park

If you live near a state park, take advantage, as MLK Day is one of 9 days where national parks waive their entrance fees. Parks that are especially fitting include the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia or Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

2. Attend a parade

Many towns and cities hold parades celebrating Dr. King or civil rights on MLK Day. Check out your local news source to see if anything is happening in your area.

3. Read a book

Knowledge is power! Read a book about Dr. King’s life, the Civil Rights Movement, or a social justice issue that you’re interested in. If you plan on checking something out from the library, head there before the holiday since public libraries will be closed in honor of the holiday.

4. Volunteer 

Senator Harris Wofford and Congressman John Lewis co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act to challenge Americans to volunteer on MLK Day as a way to honor Dr. King’s life. Spend the day giving back to your community by volunteering. Visit the National Service website to find volunteer opportunities near you. If you aren’t able to volunteer in person, consider making a donation or volunteering virtually.

5. Create Art

Whether you write plays or paint portraits, spend the holiday pursuing your passion. If you have a creative streak, reflect on issues that matter to you, and make something that brings attention to that issue. 

6. Watch a film 

Numerous films have been made about Dr. King’s life and about civil rights. Spend a couple of hours learning about Dr. King or the movement from the comfort of your own home. You could gather friends around and have a marathon of your favorite civil rights films as well.

7. Visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. is home to the area where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech after the March on Washington in 1963. The Stone of Hope opened in 2011 after over 20 years of planning.

2019 Federal Holiday Schedule

Tuesday, January 1New Year’s Day
Monday, January 21Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday, February 18Washington’s Birthday
Monday, May 27Memorial Day
Thursday, July 4Independence Day
Monday, September 2Labor Day
Monday, October 14Columbus Day
Monday, November 11Veterans Day
Thursday, November 28Thanksgiving Day
Wednesday, December 25Christmas Day


2020 Federal Holiday Schedule

Wednesday, January 1New Year’s Day
Monday, January 20Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday, February 17Washington’s Birthday
Monday, May 25Memorial Day
Friday, July 3Independence Day
Monday, September 7Labor Day
Monday, October 12Columbus Day
Wednesday, November 11Veterans Day
Thursday, November 26Thanksgiving Day
Friday, December 25Christmas Day


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