State Enviro Agency Accused of Racism

Three longtime African-American employees of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality go public with charges that they were denied opportunities for advancement and systematically blocked from salary increases

Three longtime Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employees have accused the state environmental agency of racial discrimination. Having sought the backing of the Austin NAACP, the African-American workers, part of the Support Services division, where they oversee millions of dollars of state contracts, have gone public with charges that they were denied opportunities for advancement and systematically blocked from salary increases. Not satisfied with an internal TCEQ investigation last fall that they deemed inconclusive and rushed, the three filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws. Once the EEOC launched its investigation, the three say, retaliation began, including suspected phone and e-mail surveillance, unhealthy tension and harassment on the job, and even demotion in one case. Fearing further retaliation, the three employees insist on remaining anonymous, but meanwhile, the NAACP reports ongoing, additional discrimination complaints emerging from the same division.

TCEQ spokesman Andy Saenz referenced EEOC documents dated Jan. 13 stating that the investigation was being closed because investigators were "unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations." He maintains that there was "no problem to begin with," that "discrimination doesn't happen" at the TCEQ, and says he's shocked that the matter has risen to this level. Saenz said the agency has a "very diverse and healthy workforce" that's 33% minority. The employees' move to go public with NAACP-backed complaints in January surprised the TCEQ, he said, because, according to agency attorneys, the three had not filed formal discrimination complaints internally.

NAACP President Nelson Linder flatly denies that claim. He said the three had been filing grievances within the organization for years. He also said a fourth Support Services employee has filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC and has hired a private attorney. He also said three other division employees had previously contacted the NAACP with similar claims, and he's gotten three more calls alleging racial charges within the division since the current complaints went public. None of those six have filed complaints, Linder said, in fear of retaliation.

In e-mail and face-to face interviews, the three employees recounted their experiences, some dating back over a decade. Each implicated Support Services Division Director Kerry Stennett, a white female, as the source of the discrimination. Stennett declined a phone interview with Naked City, deferring questions to TCEQ communications staff.

According to the employees, the defining event that led to their decision to go public with discrimination charges occurred when they got passed over for a management position, only to be required later to train the white female hired for the job. They accused Stennett of manipulating the agency's compensation policies to give disproportionately smaller salary increases to blacks – in such a way that it didn't appear abnormal on reports. One employee described being verbally harassed by Stennett during a lunch break, which led to that person's filing a workplace violence complaint. Following the EEOC investigation, one staffer, suspecting retaliation, reports being demoted a job classification, thus becoming ineligible for higher pay brackets that were previously attainable. And as the EEOC investigation was taking place, a staffer recalls the division's director of legal services, Kevin McCalla, leaning over a cubical and pointing confrontationally, saying, "Don't you play with fire." And perhaps most shocking, one employee produced a poster depicting a monkey, which was found taped up in a break room, with this hand-written message on it: "It's better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you're not." All three employees believe Stennett was its source.

As troubling as the allegations within this TCEQ division may be, Linder believes there's a larger, more deeply ingrained problem at hand: "Employment discrimination is a big issue in Texas and state agencies feel like they're invincible, there's very little oversight." Linder also took aim at the EEOC, saying that it has been "very ineffective at conducting a professional investigation into discrimination," and adding, "much of the evidence that is submitted is never utilized." He says the NAACP is reporting the complaints to state and federal legislators and will maintain pressure on the TCEQ. More Support Services employees are expected to come forward with racial complaints soon, Linder said.

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