On April 29, 2016, Shiyan Jiang learned he was being fired from his job at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Jiang, then 71, had been a hydrologist at the agency for more than 20 years, and he’d never received a negative performance review. He had an inkling why he’d been abruptly let go, though: One week earlier, he’d alleged race and age discrimination for the second time.
Jiang told the Observer he was repeatedly passed over for promotions and assignments that his supervisors gave to younger, white employees. He first filed an internal complaint in November 2014; a year later, he was placed on probation. His firing came a week after he complained again, this time during a progress meeting.
Jiang has since filed a lawsuit in federal court against TCEQ and his division director, Kim Wilson, alleging discrimination based on his age and race, as well as retaliation for speaking up. Earlier this month, a judge cleared the case for trial in September, finding that a reasonable jury could conclude TCEQ’s “stated reasons for terminating Jiang are untrue and that the decision to fire him was in fact motivated by race.”
Jiang’s case isn’t the only complaint of discrimination at TCEQ. According to a deposition by the agency’s human resources director, the water division — which employs about 400 of the agency’s 2,700 staffers — has conducted 11 investigations of discrimination since May 2015. Seven cases were related to discrimination based on race or national origin; three employees claimed they faced retaliation after filing a complaint.
The agency already has a poor record of ensuring equal treatment for low-income Texans and minorities. TCEQ took 17 years to settle a racial discrimination case filed by the Charlton-Pollard community in Beaumont. It also routinely fines immigrant gas station owners, often from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, for paperwork violations, while letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist.
Andrea Morrow, a spokesperson for TCEQ, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In court filings, however, the agency argued that its decision to terminate Jiang was justified. It said that Jiang did not follow directions from his supervisors, took too long to complete a project, reopened policy debates that had been settled and raised his voice in meetings. The agency’s attorneys said Jiang’s “unprofessional and disruptive conduct” at a time when his department was trying to clear a backlog of water rights permit applications led to his firing.
Jiang graduated from Peking University with a degree in nuclear physics in 1966, just as the start of the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on China’s economy. Unable to find a job, he was sent to an army farm. Eventually, Jiang was hired by the Shanghai Research Institute of Environmental Protection; in the late 1980s, he graduated from the University of Virginia with a master’s in science. He later completed his doctorate in civil engineering at Texas A&M University and joined TCEQ in 1993.
Jiang told the Observer that he’d suspected he was the target of discrimination since he first joined the agency, but that the unfair treatment had become overt in the last few years. In addition to being passed over for promotions, he says, a supervisor spoke rudely to him and threw his work papers in the trash. Supervisors also often gave work that should have been assigned to him to younger, white employees. At first, he stayed quiet because he was worried he’d be fired before he qualified for retirement.
But in the years prior to filing the complaints, Jiang said the work environment became “hostile.” Supervisors sometimes failed to invite him to technical meetings; when he was present and raised his hand, they’d call on him but end the meeting without answering his questions. He finally felt emboldened to speak up after he qualified for his pension. At the time of his firing, he earned $66,750 a year, according to court filings.
“When I qualified for retirement, my voice was little higher,” Jiang said. “Otherwise, how [would] I pay the bills? They utilize the people who stay silent.”
In the initial summary judgement of the discrimination case, the judge noted that “the timing of Jiang’s termination could be viewed as suspicious.” The recommendation to fire the longtime hydrologist came a day after he made his second complaint. A week later, his division director drafted the paperwork necessary to fire him.
“There was this double standard that seemed to be applied to older minority employees,” said Colin Walsh, Jiang’s attorney. “They didn’t treat other people who looked like Jiang and who were Jiang’s age the same way.”
Since 2015, three other TCEQ employees have been placed on probation or put on performance improvement plans after they complained of discrimination. Walsh said that shows a pattern of retaliation at TCEQ against employees who raise concerns about discrimination.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in a district court in Austin on September 24. Jiang, now 73, said he’s looking for compensation for the years that he wasn’t promoted, as well as the damage to his reputation and standing in the Chinese community after he was fired. Most importantly, according to Jiang, is that his case could serve as a warning to the agency. “You can’t do discrimination,” he said. “This [is] against the law.”