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Legal Insider: Suggestions for New Virginia Employment Laws

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

With the change in control of the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, there is an opportunity to modernize employment laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

While there are a number of other suggestions out there already regarding the raising wages, right to work laws and other wage-related issues, I think that there are also some less contentious fixes that could offer employees enhanced protections.

Here are some suggestions for the Virginia Legislature to consider:

Enact a Whistleblower Law: Virginia has been one of those states where whistleblower laws for the private sector are nearly non-existent. Currently, there is no general statute where an individual employed in the private sector is terminated because of disclosures about illegal activities.

There has been a common-law cause of action known as a Bowman claim but the courts have long avoided holding employers accountable without a statute in place. We are hopeful that the legislature is able to accomplish this. New York has a very good law that protects private-sector employees from whistleblower retaliation that should be considered. NY Consolidated Laws, Labor Law – LAB § 740.

Add Sexual Orientation Discrimination to the Virginia Human Rights Act: The Virginia Human Rights Act does not currently protect workers from sexual orientation discrimination. It is past time for the Commonwealth of Virginia to change this. Doing so would only require a minor addition to VA Code § 2.2-3900.

Provide an Employee the Right to Dispute Termination Allegations: While Virginia and other jurisdictions remain at-will states, there is no reason why an employee should not be permitted to rebut false allegations made against them in a termination matter which have been placed on file with the employer. Massachusetts has an excellent law (MGL Ch. 149, Section 52C) on this subject which provides an employee a complete copy of their personnel file and the opportunity to negotiate what their final employment record will reflect.

Alternatively, the law provides the employee the opportunity to respond to negative termination allegations that would be kept in their employment file. If a third party requests information about the person’s former employment, both the termination letter and the former employee’s response would be provided, not just the termination letter. While amended recently, the Virginia Legislature would likely have to amend VA Code § 8.01-413.1 to accomplish this needed reform.

Revamp the Administrative Grievance Process for State/Public Employees: Presently, while there is a process that allows public employees to file a grievance and seek a hearing in termination cases, the truth is that the process is heavily slanted to the public employer. The hearing officers rule overwhelmingly on an employer’s behalf even when a termination is flawed. There is no reason why the hearing process cannot provide a level playing field for public sector employees. This would not require legislation, only changes and training at the hearing official level at the Virginia Office of Equal Employment and Dispute Resolution.

Conclusion

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