Gov. Ralph Northam is moving to bolster Virginia’s state workforce with a pair of executive orders that will grant up to eight weeks of paid parental leave to state employees and create an advisory panel to recommend ways to help state workers with child care and early childhood education.
Northam signed the orders Tuesday during a meeting of the Virginia Executive Institute Alumni Association — with a roomful of current and former state agency leaders in the Patrick Henry Building — accompanied by his wife, Pam, who will lead the new Governor’s Advisory Commission on Quality Child Care and Education, with members of his Cabinet.
The governor said the order creating paid parental leave will help state employees with young families who previously have relied on federal law that protects their jobs while on family leave but doesn’t require employers to pay them.
“That protection is an important one, but we all recognize that in today’s economy, most families can’t afford to go even a week without a paycheck,” he said.
Executive Orders 12 and 13 aim to improve Virginia’s ability to recruit and retain new state employees at a time when the workforce — about 105,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time workers — faces a wave of impending retirements and challenges in offering compensation that’s competitive with private employers.
The parental leave order applies to full-time executive branch classified employees — including those at colleges and universities who aren’t on separate personnel systems — and at-will employees appointed by the governor.
In addition to children by birth, the order applies to adoption or foster care placement of a child younger than 18.
“This strengthens our position as a family-friendly employer,” Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said in introducing the governor.
The governor’s order does not automatically apply to legislative branch employees, but Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said Tuesday that she is adopting the state policy for her staff.
The clerk’s office employs 34 people, “two of whom are pregnant,” Schaar said.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, directed the House clerk’s office in December — before being elected speaker — to develop a policy to provide paid parental leave to full-time House employees.
The House implemented the new policy to give employees up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave, which they can use within 12 months of the birth of a child, adoption or foster care placement.
In comparison, the governor’s new policy gives employees up to six months to use their paid parental leave.
“The speaker is glad to see the governor following the lead of the House on this important issue,” House spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said.
The Northam administration estimates the cost of the parental leave policy at $495,000 because of additional overtime and contractor expenses for “critical, must-fill positions,” said Brian Coy, the governor’s communications director.
However, he said the administration will expect state agencies to absorb those costs without additional budget appropriations.
“We do expect there to be some lost productivity, as most agencies would absorb the workload and not backfill,” he said. “We should note that this loss in productivity would be the same if the new parent utilized” the Federal Medical Leave Act.
The new advisory commission is charged with studying ways to provide “evidence-based early care and learning programs” for the young children of state employees.
The governor said in an interview that instead of child care providers, “we really want to talk about it as childhood educators.”
“We recognize the role that quality early childhood care and education plays in creating opportunity for Virginia children and families,” first lady Pam Northam said in a written statement. “We see this important step as an investment in our future workforce, as well as essential support for our working families that serve the commonwealth.”
Competing for employees
Coy said the orders are part of an ongoing effort to make state government more competitive as an employer.
“We’re in a competition for recruiting and retaining talent,” Coy said.
Col. Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association and a former state police superintendent, said the new policy will help young state troopers who are starting families.
“We appreciate the governor doing this,” Huggins said. “It’s a good thing.”
Coy has a personal reason for liking his boss’s new policy. In less than two weeks he and his wife, Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Coy, are expecting their second child.
Currently, both of them would rely on a combination of unpaid leave or vacation time.
Under the policy, couples who both have state jobs each would be entitled to the eight weeks of paid leave, which they could take together or successively. The policy applies to all full-time state employees with at least 12 months of experience.
“It changes how I feel about working for state government,” he said.
State employee pay lags market compensation significantly, but Virginia has tried to make public service more attractive with generous health and retirement benefits.
The new two-year budget that will take effect July 1 includes a 2 percent raise for state employees in the second year, as well as the opportunity to receive up to 2 percent in performance-based merit raises.
“We’ve got to wait a little bit, but the ball continues to move down the field,” said Huggins, who lobbied successfully last year for a big boost in pay for a state police force that was losing officers at an alarming rate. “That’s all we can ask for.”