DALLAS, Ore. (KOIN) — Five women have filed complaints with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries alleging a co-worker at Salem’s largest hospital sexually harassed them over and over again.
Two of the women allege that the situation got so bad they ended up leaving their jobs at Salem Health’s West Valley Hospital in Dallas, Oregon.
At first, the women allege they put up with the dirty comments, the suggestive stares, and the way their male co-worker found reasons to brush up against their bodies.
They say they told the man to stop, but that the behavior continued.
Melissa Aguilar, Staci Hoover, Krystle Vinton, Jamie Broussard and Celena Aronson eventually filed complaints in July detailing the sexual harassment they allegedly experienced.
Aguilar, a medical lab technologist says she confided in Hoover last fall that the man, a longtime Salem Health employee, was making her feel uncomfortable.
Hoover told her she wasn’t alone.
“She said to me, ‘I’ve gone to the supervisor,’” Aguilar recalled. “’Nothing’s happened. Nothing’s changed.’”
Hoover, who started working for Salem Health in 2003, said she had complained to a supervisor years earlier about the man’s sexual behavior in the laboratory—but that the complaints went nowhere.
They hoped that speaking up again – together – would lead to a different result. Over time, the other three women would come forward and allege that they, too, had experienced sexual harassment involving the same man.
The women, however, complain that it took months for human resources to open an investigation.
Then, once the investigation began, they say the retaliation they experienced was so severe it made some of them wish they had never spoken up at all. One year later, the women who remain say Salem Health has done little – if anything – to fix the situation or protect them from harassment.
“As bad as I want it fixed, I don’t know if I would be able to endure it again,” Hoover said.
‘Really violated, and scared, and anxious’
Salem Health refused to speak with KOIN 6 News on the allegations or its handling of the women’s complaints, citing the open BOLI investigations.
KOIN 6 News also reached out multiple times to the man accused of sexual harassment, but he did not respond to the repeated requests for an interview. KOIN 6 News is choosing not to identify him by name, as the state’s investigation remains open and there has been no public finding of wrongdoing. Employment attorneys tell KOIN 6 News that “he said-she said” situations in the workplace can be incredibly challenging to investigate.
Attorney Scott Cliff, who is not involved in this case but has represented people accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, said it can often be a “tough situation” for the accused.
“They often won’t have any memory of alleged events, because, say, maybe it’s been weeks or months in the past, and it wasn’t anything significant [to them],” Cliff said. There can be ambiguity in some cases. In at least one recent incident, an innocent exchange was misinterpreted as harassment.
Emails KOIN 6 News reviewed show the women repeatedly reported harassment and retaliation to their manager. The instances alleged in those emails echo the claims in the Bureau of Labor and Industries complaints. They are now represented by the law firm Gilroy Napoli Short; their attorney, Jeff Napoli, declined to speak about their case.
In her complaint, laboratory assistant Celena Aronson alleges the man would make sexual gestures toward her. “For example, when I would tell him to not handle the vaginal cultures without gloves, he would look at me then lick his fingers,” her complaint stated.
Jamie Broussard, a laboratory scientist, alleged in a separate complaint that this same man “showed sexually suggestive videos.” He “talks about his ‘big balls and penis’ and sex life,” lab assistant Krystle Vinton said in her complaint.
Aguilar’s complaint alleges, “On numerous occasions [he] would go out of his way to put his crotch in my face.”
Hoover’s complaint alleges this same senior lab technician “offered to lick clean a blood stain on the breast area of my shirt.” Aguilar told KOIN 6 News what she told management in emails – she was there at the time and she has corroborated Hoover’s account.
Speaking about the incident — nearly a year later — still brings Hoover to tears.
“Really violated, and scared, and anxious,” Hoover said, describing how the comment made her feel. “And really sad, because I really just want to go to work [and do] my job.”
Women allege harassment concerns went unreported
According to emails shown to KOIN 6 News, Aguilar and Hoover went to their manager in October 2017, detailing the ways their coworker made them feel uncomfortable. They say this was a different manager than the one Hoover had spoken with years earlier.
Initially, the women say they were given reason to believe that change would finally come.
The manager emailed Aguilar on October 23, calling this a “very serious topic” and recognizing that it was his “job to provide [Aguilar] with a comfortable work environment.”
He said he would be speaking with the man that day about his behavior, and that he wanted Aguilar to come forward if the man didn’t change his actions.
According to a November 29, 2017 message from the CEO of Salem to employees, managers were required to report complaints of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior to Human Resources for investigation.
“I was never contacted by HR at that point,” Hoover said.
According to the complaints filed with BOLI, the man’s behavior didn’t change. If anything, the women say their situation got worse.
In late December, Hoover emailed their manager alleging that they were experiencing retaliation and that she and Aguilar were both suffering from anxiety severe enough to require doctor-prescribed medications.
“Please help us,” she pleaded.
HR gets involved after women reach out
Broussard says she helped Aguilar write an email directly to human resources about the situation in late December. Emails from Hoover show she spoke to human resources on January 2, 2018 – roughly three months after she and Aguilar reported the harassment to their manager.
In a January 3, 2018 email to her manager, Hoover describes what she alleges was worsening retaliation from the man and other co-workers that she says was exacerbating her stress and anxiety.
“I feel bullied and gossiped about and unfairly judged by people he has shared his version of the story with,” Hoover wrote.
Employment attorneys not involved in this specific case say a hostile work environment following a complaint can be a form of retaliation.
Later that month, Hoover emailed her manager and the human resources employee saying she had to change her clothes while working in the lab due to an incident of stress-induced irritable bowel syndrome.
“[I]t is awful and embarrassing, but it is not the first time I have had to change my clothes due to an accident from stress related to this situation,” Hoover wrote to the manager and the HR staffer on January 30.
She wrote that she didn’t understand why HR would make her work with someone who has sexually harassed her for years.
“Why is this allowed to continue? How much do I have to endure? I am afraid to come to work at this point,” she wrote.
In response, the manager emailed that he was sorry the reported behavior had been affecting Hoover for so long, and that he and HR were working through a review of the retaliation and hostility claims.
Cliff, the employment attorney, said companies often keep employee discipline confidential. Even if there had been discipline, restrictions or guidelines set in place, Cliff said it’s possible that the women would not have been notified.
Schedules change, but problems persist
According to emails, the man’s schedule was changed by mid-February. The change, however, was one that the women allege the man had already wanted.
Hoover wrote her manager saying it seemed to her and others that the man had been rewarded for his behavior — not punished.
Even with the schedule change, the women claim the problems continued. Emails from late February and March – roughly five months after the women first approached their manager – show they were still reporting instances they described as harassment and retaliation.
“Five out of seven days, not a day goes by that we don’t see him or interact with him. We’re always there with him,” Broussard said. “Even though the schedule had changed somewhat, that didn’t alleviate any of it.”
Outside investigator is hired
Because Salem Health wouldn’t speak to KOIN 6 about its handling of the claims, it is unclear when or why the organization decided to hire an outside attorney to handle the hospital’s investigation.
Hoover says she sat down with the investigator for an hours-long interview in April. She had filed that month for 8 weeks’ leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to deal with “severe symptoms of depression and anxiety,” according to a copy of the form submitted to Salem Health and provided to KOIN 6.
The other women, however, said they didn’t feel comfortable meeting with the investigator unless they could have an attorney present. They say Salem Health denied their request. The outside investigator did not respond to KOIN 6’s requests to speak.
After months of asking for help, it may seem peculiar — or even suspicious — that four of the women wouldn’t cooperate with the outside investigator. Aguilar, Vinton, and Broussard explain their decision, saying they felt the investigator was there to protect the company’s best interests.
They say they felt their words would be twisted if they didn’t have someone they felt believed in them present.
“When I was asked to do the interview with the investigator, it was presented as we were liars,” Vinton said. “I was told, ‘Make sure you’re truthful.’ I took it as, ‘You’re calling us liars – you don’t believe us.’”
Cliff, who is not affiliated with this case, doesn’t know exactly why Salem Health wouldn’t allow the women to have their attorney present, but he said employers often believe in-house investigations are not an appropriate place for attorney involvement.
Aguilar said that by the time the investigator was brought in, she felt that Salem Health had all the information the investigator could possibly need, documented in months of emails and conversations with human resources.
“It gets to a point where you feel like you’re chasing your tail, telling your story over and over and saying, ‘Please help us,’” Aguilar said. “At that point, we felt very unprotected, and very unsafe, and very vulnerable to everything going on.”
“Nobody had our back,” she said.
Cliff, however, said the four women’s decision not to cooperate with the investigation likely affected the outcome.
“If you only have one witness’s story to assess, and you’re looking at that versus the alleged harasser, it becomes harder to assess credibility,” Cliff said. He said that the outside investigator might not have felt comfortable relying heavily on previous HR interviews.
‘I’m still grieving the loss of my job’
The women say the past year had devastating effects on their lives.
In their complaints to the Bureau of Labor and Industries, the women say retaliation included “unnecessary schedule changes,” “intimidation in the workplace,” and “increased scrutiny and write-ups.”
Further, they allege that the harassment they experienced led them to feel physically vulnerable and unsafe at work.
“At this point in my life, men are dangerous,” Aguilar said, tearing up. “People who say they’ll protect you are dangerous. I feel very lied to.”
While Broussard is still working at Salem Health’s West Valley campus, Aronson’s complaint to the Bureau of Labor and Industries indicated that she cut her hours due to the stress she experienced on the job. Vinton has quit her job since speaking with KOIN 6 News in September.
Hoover also quit after taking medical leave. She cries talking about the decision to walk away from a position at the hospital where she was born, and in a community where she has spent her whole life.
She said she’s still grieving the loss of her job at Salem Health.
“All I wanted was to work at the hospital and be treated with respect, not [be harassed] and be an outcast,” she said. “They singled me out. I went to the people who promised they would help but nobody helped me.”
Aguilar, meanwhile, is still working at the West Valley campus. In early October, she once again emailed higher-ups saying the harassment and retaliation had affected her “emotionally, physically and psychologically,” and that she felt scared coming to work.
“I feel unprotected,” she wrote.
She said she had requested a transfer from the West Valley campus to avoid seeing her male co-worker, but had not yet heard back. While Salem Health would not confirm the man’s employment to KOIN 6, the women say he is still working for the hospital group.
“Things are not better at all,” she wrote in an email to KOIN 6 News. She said she was offered information on workman’s compensation but can’t afford any loss of income.
“All we can do is hope and pray that this will help someone in the future and that these types of situations will be taken more seriously … when they are reported,” Aguilar wrote.
Hoover said she finally lost faith in the system and in an organization for which she had worked since 2003.
A month and a half after Hoover resigned, Salem Health Human Resources sent her a letter stating that the investigations by the outside investigator were “complete” and that Salem Health was “taking the steps it believes are appropriate.” Salem Health also offered to meet with Hoover if she had any additional information or concerns that she did not raise while working at Salem. For Hoover, this was all too little, too late.
“The slogan at Salem Health is ‘You matter,’” Hoover said. “But I didn’t matter, and I don’t feel like anyone else did.”