Land Office, Agriculture Department Facing Federal Suit

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas General Land Office, alleging that the agencies are liable for pay discrimination against three women.

The women worked as program specialists in the Disaster Recovery Division of the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, which was absorbed by the Agriculture Department and the Land Office in October. The women were paid annual salaries ranging from $62,000 to $72,522 while men in the same position were paid between $79,631 and $95,157, according to an investigation led by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. The women complained multiple times to the TDRA, the suit says, and eventually got a pay raise, but it was not enough to equalize the pay. 

When the Disaster Recovery Division was dissolved in February 2011, the women were told that some employees would be asked to stay with the TDRA, but according to the lawsuit, there was no application to determine who would stay employed, and the jobs went to two men. The women were dismissed. The Justice Department is alleging that their terminations are related to their complaints about pay inequality. 

Both Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the complaints originated before their agencies absorbed the TDRA.

Charlie Stone, who was the executive director of the TDRA at the time, has since retired.

The Justice Department is asking for back pay for the women, and new policies and training to prevent future discrimination.

“The wage gap between women and men persists, and the Civil Rights Division is committed to using all the tools available under this nation’s employment discrimination laws to ensure equal pay for equal work," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in the Justice Department’s news release.

Calls to the women made by KEYE TV in Austin were not returned. 

Patterson said that he inherited the problem when the TDRA was absorbed by the Land Office. 

"I don't know if there's a valid complaint or not. I just know they're things that allegedly occurred before they were employed at the General Land Office," Patterson said.

Staples also pointed out that the complaints occurred before his office took over.

“The agency where these actions allegedly occurred was abolished by the Texas Legislature," Staples said in a prepared statement. "The Texas Office of Attorney General has been working with federal lawyers to resolve this matter on behalf of the former Texas Department of Rural Affairs. The U.S. Department of Justice, for obvious political purposes, issued a grossly misleading press release simply to take an unnecessary shot at Texas. We want a federal government that works with states − not against them."

The Texas attorney general's office would not comment because the litigation is ongoing. 

KEYE TV in Austin contributed to this report.

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