A federal agency sued a Montrose nursing home after female employees reported they were not protected from sexual harassment by male clients, who groped them and made explicit comments.
The lawsuit filed Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accuses SavaSeniorCare and its subsidiaries of subjecting female employees to severe and pervasive sexual harassment that created a hostile work environment at the San Juan Living Center. The lawsuit also says the nursing home company retaliated against one woman who complained by suspending and then firing her.
The EEOC files lawsuits against companies after it investigates complaints and determines there is evidence of wrongdoing and after it tries to find a resolution through a formal conciliation process. It’s the second lawsuit the EEOC has filed since 2018 against a Colorado personal care company for allowing its employees to be groped and harassed by clients.
Businesses have a duty to protect employees from harassment no matter who is doing it, said Mary Jo O’Neill, a lawyer in the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office.
“The obligation goes beyond their own employees, but it goes to customers and clients,” she said.
Lawsuits involving male nursing home residents assaulting others can be challenging, especially if the patients have dementia. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a paper on sexual aggression in nursing homes, saying fellow residents inside senior care facilities are the most common perpetrators of sexual assault, often due to inappropriate hypersexual behavior caused by dementia.
But in the San Juan Living Center case, the two main offenders did not have dementia or any other mental health issues, O’Neill said.
Annaliese Impink, a SavaSeniorCare spokesperson, said the company would not comment because it had not been served with the lawsuit.
The lawsuit cited multiple examples of male residents grabbing women’s privates and exposing themselves, including masturbating in front of them. The men also routinely made suggestive sexual comments.
The behavior was frequent and notorious and the San Juan Living Center management was aware that it was happening and could have taken steps to stop it, the lawsuit said.
Senior living facilities and in-home care companies can take steps to protect their employees, such as requiring two people to work with a problem patient and installing cameras in the facility. But San Juan Living Center management did nothing, O’Neill said.
“In this case, they kind of said, ‘This is what the job is. Take it or leave it,’” O’Neill said. “They literally blew these women off and said if you want to work here this is what you have to put up with.”
On April 20, 2017, one employee reported that she was trying to avoid a client who repeatedly groped her. Management told her to clock out and go home. She was suspended without pay until she was fired four days later.
The EEOC is demanding that SavaSenior Care provide backpay, plus interest, to the woman and to provide payments to its female employees to compensate for the unlawful work environment. The lawsuit also asks the senior living center to put policies and programs in place to prevent future harassment.
The EEOC continues to litigate a 2018 lawsuit against Joyvida, which runs Amada Personal Care in Colorado Springs, after it failed to protect multiple female employees from an elderly couple’s son, who sexually harassed employees.
But the company, in a response filed in federal court, said the complaints were groundless, that the women complained but didn’t report sexual harassment, and the EEOC failed to conduct a thorough investigation. The case is scheduled for a jury trial in August 2021.
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