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New Law Will Create Virginia’s First Secretary of Labor

Workers sit on piece of bridge making repairs
Construction workers make repairs to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden, N.J., Friday, April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The General Assembly is giving Megan Healy a promotion. On July 1, she’ll take on a role no one has held before: Virginia secretary of labor.

Healy already oversees a portfolio of labor-related activities as Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief workforce advisor. And she already sits on Northam’s cabinet thanks to an executive memo the governor signed early in his term. But a little-noticed bill passed by the General Assembly in February makes those changes permanent for future governors in a move labor advocates say has symbolic heft. 

Greg Akerman, the Northern Virginia director of DC Metro Building and Construction Trades, said the position was part of a broader reorientation toward workers after Democrats took control of the legislature last year.

“It’s going to change the way that Virginia is perceived as a state where businesses can no longer run rampant over the needs and concerns of workers,” Akerman said. 

Much of Healy’s work will continue unchanged. She’ll still oversee the Virginia Employment Commission, Department of Labor and Industry (which she currently jointly oversees alongside Secretary of Commerce Brian Ball) and the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation -- positions she got not under the state code, but because Northam delegated them to her. 

Labor has had uneven representation in past governor’s cabinets. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) created a “chief workforce development advisor” post via executive order in 2006. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) placed their workforce training directors under the secretary of education, though they worked across various secretariats. A 2017 law created a position reporting directly to the governor.

Healy began her tenure in 2018 with a mandate to focus on workforce training amid a push to diversify Virginia’s economy. But in an interview, she recalled noticing what she believed was missing. 

“I knew there was a gap specifically in the governor's office around worker protections,” Healy said.

The issue gained more attention after a 2019 report from Oxfam ranked Virginia as the worst state for workers. New Democratic majorities helped nudge up the ranking 14 spots, giving Healy new work enforcing new laws on wage theft, workplace protections, and worker misclassification. 

The new secretary of labor position was universally opposed by Republicans. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) successfully pushed for an amendment renaming the position “Secretary of Workforce,” though the rebranding was stricken in a final version of the bill. 

“Labor sounds more in the union sector,” Dunnavant said in a February committee meeting. “Workforce addresses all workforce -- the entire Virginia workforce.”

Republicans also voted against several labor changes set to go into effect May 1, including laws raising the minimum wage and permitting local governments to allow collective bargaining with their employees. Northam delayed the rollout of the laws from their original January 1, 2021 start date, citing economic fallout caused by the pandemic. 

Many of the Democratic contenders for governor have pushed for broader changes, including mandatory paid sick leave, catastrophic and family leave, and repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law. Republicans and some Democrats oppose the moves, arguing that they will hurt businesses.