Skip to Main Content

Leadership Team

Melinda Kelsey

Melinda Kelsey,  Chief of Staff

Melinda Kelsey is Chief of Staff for Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  She is responsible for coordinating the Department’s high priority commitments and identifying projects where the Department can grow Tennessee’s workforce.

Kelsey has served the people of Tennessee for more than two decades.  Prior to her appointment as Chief of Staff in 2016, Kelsey was the Administrator of Communications, Constituent, and Government Relations.  In this role, she spearheaded the groundbreaking Paychecks for Patriots hiring event, a public-private partnership that helped put hundreds of Tennessee veterans to work.  The Department’s marketing efforts for the event garnered 16 Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Parthenon Awards. While a member of the Nashville Serving Veterans Community Board, Kelsey was given the “Volunteer Award” by the Tennessee Department of Military for her commitment to serving veterans in Tennessee.

Kelsey is a member of the steering committee for the P-20 Connect project and serves on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations’ Human Trafficking Advisory Council.  Kelsey is an ex-officio member of the Statewide Planning and Policy Council (SPPC) for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD).  She is a 2006 Tennessee Government Executive Institute graduate and served as the President and the Vice Chair of its executive committee. Kelsey served on the Tennessee Government Leadership Council and is a graduate of the TBI (2011) and FBI (2014) Citizens' Academy. 

White, Ian_blueframe

Ian White,  Assistant Commissioner

Ian White was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Adult Education division in 2017.  He began his career with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development as the Director of Performance and Compliance for that division. In this role, White handled reporting requirements for local adult education programs; ensuring data was captured properly for federal reporting.  During that time he also led the team that monitored the local programs, to make certain all grantees abided by, and remained in compliant with, state and federal requirements.

Before working with the Adult Education division, White served as an Appeals Hearing Officer for Unemployment Appeals unit in the Department’s Employment Security division.  In this role he reviewed and made decisions on appeals of unemployment benefits decisions.

Prior to his coming to Tennessee state government, White worked with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where he analyzed legislation during the Mississippi legislative session to determine any possible impact on the hospital. 

White graduated Freed Hardeman University with a Bachelor of Arts in History and minor in Political Studies.  He later earned his Juris Doctor degree from Mississippi College School of Law.


Steve Hawkins

Steve Hawkins,  Assistant Commissioner

Steve Hawkins has spent more than 30 years keeping Tennessee workers safe while on the job.   Appointed Assistant Commissioner in 2012, Hawkins manages the day-to-day operations of Tennessee OSHA (TOSHA). Promoting workplace safety and health across Tennessee, he leads the team that educates employer groups and labor organizations about safety and health regulations, performs compliance inspections, and consults with employers to develop better methods for controlling and eliminating workplace hazards.

Hawkins has been with the Department of Labor & Workforce Development since 1986, beginning his career as an occupational safety specialist and subsequently serving as an area office safety supervisor, safety compliance manager, and as the assistant administrator of the program.

A four term member of the Federal OSHA Advisory Committee for Construction Safety, Hawkins also serves on the Manufacturing and Engineering Technology Advisory board at his alma mater, Tennessee Technological University. 

Hawkins plays a key role in several safety organizations in the state, including the Tennessee Blasting Advisory Council, the Tennessee Associated Builders & Contractors Safety Advisory Committee, the Associated General Contractors Safety Committee, and the Tennessee Road Builders Association Safety Committee.  He is also the co-chair of the annual Tennessee Safety and Health Congress and a board member of the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association.

Hawkins also serves as the department liaison to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and is a member of the Tennessee Emergency Response Commission. 

Abbie Hudgens

Abbie Hudgens,  Administrator

Abbie Hudgens has served as Administrator for Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation program since September 2011.  In 2013, following the restructuring of the state’s Workers’ Compensation system, Governor Bill Haslam officially appointed Hudgens as Administrator of the newly formed Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

Prior to working for the state of Tennessee, Hudgens served the city of Knoxville as Risk and Benefits Manager, and later Davidson County, as Risk Manager.  She spent six years as the public sector representative on the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council while in Knoxville.

Hudgens left government for a brief time and provided consulting services through a private practice, The Hudgens Group.

Long active in professional organizations, she has been the president of the Public Risk Management Association and the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and president of the International Association of Industrial Accidents Boards and Commissions (IAIABC).

In 2015, Hudgens was honored with the IAIABC’s Frances Perkins Award, named after the former U.S. Secretary of Labor and IAIABC president.  In 2017 she received the WorkCompCentral Comp Laude Award, recognizing her as an industry leader.


Deniece Thomas,  Assistant Commissioner

Deniece Thomas began her career with the state of Tennessee in 2007 at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  She was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Department’s Workforce Services division in 2018.  

Thomas previously served in a variety of roles within that division before she was promoted to Assistant Commissioner.  She helped guide the division as an assistant administrator, division director and as a supervisor.

Thomas is a 2014 Graduate of LEAD Tennessee Alliance 5.  She holds a Master of Arts degree in Civic Leadership from Lipscomb University in Nashville and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

Deniece is married to retired career army veteran Trenton Thomas and they have two children, son Trenton II and daughter Trinity.

Kim Jefferson

Kim Jefferson,  Assistant Commissioner

Kim Y. Jefferson has been with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development since 2005 and was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Workplace Regulations and Compliance Division in 2013.

In her current role, Jefferson oversees boilers, elevators, amusement devices, and mines throughout the state of Tennessee.  The division enforces six labor laws including Child Labor, TN Lawful Employment, Illegal Alien, Non-Smoker Protection, Wage Regulations and Prevailing Wage for state-funded contracts. 

Jefferson began her public service career in 2001 as Bankruptcy Counsel for the Tennessee Department of Revenue.  She then continued her work in the Bankruptcy Division at the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General as an Assistant Attorney General.

Jefferson is a member of the Tennessee and Nashville Bar Associations, Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women, Napier-Looby Bar Association, and is currently listed as a Rule 31 Mediator by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Jefferson is a graduate of Tennessee State University, University of Arkansas School of Law (Fayetteville), and a 2015 graduate of the Tennessee Government Executive Institute.  In January 2018, Jefferson was appointed to serve as a board member of the Ivy Center Foundation of Nashville, Inc.    

Rusty Felts

Rusty Felts,  Assistant Commissioner

Rusty Felts was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Employment Security division in 2016. 

He is an 18-year veteran of the department’s unemployment insurance program.  Felts started as an interviewer and later moved to the claims center where he was a trainer, supervisor, manager, and eventually the Director of Claims Operations.

He is a recent graduate of LEAD TN, a Tennessee Department of Human Resources-sponsored statewide leadership program.

Felts is an avid outdoorsman.  He and his wife Desiree have three children.

Fred Gaston

Fred Gaston,  Assistant Commissioner

Fred Gaston is the Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources. Before coming to the Department of Labor & Workforce Development in 2013, Gaston served as the director of human resources for the City of La Vergne and SRS, Inc.

He is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), International Personnel Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR), and Tennessee Personnel Management Association (TPMA-HR).

Gaston served on the state of Tennessee Learning and Development Council; he is part of the state’s Black Belt Leadership Program and a graduate of the Tennessee Government Executive Institute.



Lisa Howard,  Assistant Commissioner

Lisa Howard is the Assistant Commissioner of the Department’s WIRED.

WIRED is an acronym for Workforce Insights, Research and Reporting Engine Division, which encompasses the functions of the division that was formed in 2017.  WIRED uses data collected by the Labor Market Information (LMI) unit, the Jobs4TN website, and the Customer Success Team to determine strategy and drive evidence based decisions for the Department. 

Prior to her current role, Howard was the Assistant Commissioner for the Department’s Information Technology division.  In that position she led a team of 50 highly skilled IT professionals, providing the computer hardware, software, programming and maintenance to meet the business needs of the agency. 

Howard has a distinguished 30-year career with the state of Tennessee.  She previously served in leadership positions with the Comptroller of the Treasury, Finance and Administration, and Department of Education.

Howard is an active member of the state’s Information Technology Executive Council, as well as the Information Technology Professionals Associations.