US agency sues Vermont nursing home over racial abuse claims

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a Vermont nursing home over allegations that it allowed patients to racially abuse Black staff members.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington says the long-term care facility Elderwood at Burlington violated federal law by allowing Black nurses and nurse assistants to be subjected to what the suit describes as ongoing and egregious racial harassment.

The suit says that starting in 2020, certain white residents of Elderwood repeatedly directed offensive racial slurs and physically assaulted Elderwood’s Black nurses and nurse assistants.

“This har­assment was especially grotesque, and should have been addressed quickly but was allowed to continue,” Timothy Riera, acting director of the EEOC’s New York District Office, said in a news release. “An employer cannot ignore egregious racial harassment simply because the harassers are long-term care facility residents.”

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, Elderwood spokesperson Chuck Hayes said the company was aware of the EEOC suit but could not comment on ongoing legal matters.

“We strongly emphasize that Elderwood at Burlington does not tolerate harassment of any kind, and prides itself on promoting a culture of diversity and inclusion,” the statement said. “All reports of inappropriate resident behavior are investigated and addressed. We will vigorously defend our efforts to protect our staff from racial harassment.”

The EEOC lawsuit says the harassment was carried out by a white male resident and female residents. The workers noted the harassment in resident care notes and one employee reported multiple complaints through Elderwood’s employee hotline.

Elderwood managers observed the workers being subjected to the racial harassment, but did not stop it and they attended a meeting in August 2020 where the affected employees complained about the harassment, the suit says.

The suit says unsuccessful efforts were made to move the white male resident to another facility. After the alleged abuse was reported by the Vermont weekly newspaper Seven Days in October 2020, Elderwood officials told state officials they tried to move the white male resident to another facility, but no such transfer occurred.

The EEOC tried to reach an agreement with Elderwood to settle the charges, but was unable to do so, the suit says. The suit is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for the affected employees and the prevention of future workplace racial harassment.

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