(COLORADO SPRINGS) — Nine current and former employees say that a senior doctor sexually assaulted and harassed them for years at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Colorado Springs, part of a prominent system of facilities dedicated to helping patients recover from life-threatening injuries.
The women have filed formal complaints against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaints also blame the hospital’s former CEO Steven Schaefer for not shielding the employees from a rampant sexual predator despite knowing about it. The complaints do not name the perpetrator.
The nine women claim that Schaefer permitted a senior physician to engage in physical and verbal sexual harassment of female staff for nearly a decade. FOX21 spoke with two of the victims, both of whom wished to remain anonymous to safeguard themselves from retaliation.
According to the charges, the alleged harasser touched women inappropriately at work and engaged in explicit conversations.
“He would lean forward and say, ‘Are you in an open relationship or have you ever had sex with a woman?’ Or, ‘If we had sex, it would be rough, right’?” said one of the women.
The Christmas party assault
The EEOC complaints were triggered by one egregious incident that unfolded at Encompass Health’s annual Christmas party in December 2022.
According to the charges, the evening was marked by excessive drinking, encouraged and paid for by Schaefer, and the unnamed senior physician. One female colleague, who was allegedly incapacitated by intoxication, claimed that the senior physician sexually assaulted her after the party at his home.
“This woman was barely able to walk and had to be assisted into the provider’s car,” stated one of the charges.
That employee filed a complaint with the company’s HR department and soon left her position. However, the senior physician retained his position.
“My colleague’s experience with sexual assault was a situation that should have never occurred, and Encompass Health knew very well that this provider had been sexually harassing their colleagues for years,” said one of the former employees who ended up having to work closely with the doctor after the employee who was allegedly sexually assaulted left.
The employees claimed that despite complaints to HR, the pattern of harassment persisted.
“It was a terrifying prospect that part of my role at Encompass Health was going to be that I was now forced to work with someone that was widely known to be a sexual predator… On a daily basis myself and my colleagues were actually in danger,” the employee said.
Failure to Protect Its Workers
When the employee sought intervention from Schaefer, the response was less than satisfactory.
“The CEO basically told me that he wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to make that happen,” she recalled.
According to the complainants, Schaefer suggested that women who didn’t wish to work with the senior physician should find a different job, and even made light of the serious situation.
“CEO Stephen Schaefer ‘joked’ about setting The Provider up on dates with female staff who reported to him and The Provider and did set The Provider up on at least one,” stated one of the charges.
According to employees, the CEO allowed the doctor to work there for two more months after being made aware of the alleged Christmas party incident.
“He was responsible for putting an end to those things, and rather than doing that, he allowed it to continue knowingly… One of the women… had a psychotic break. I don’t know how else to describe it… That was the turning point of realizing, Encompass was forgetting that we were people,” said another former employee.
Whisper Networks and Unaddressed Warnings
By the time that the topmost executive allegedly failed to protect his employees from sexual harassment, whisper networks of female employees had already been in play for years, according to the charges. Some complainants claim they were forewarned about the provider as early as 2017.
“I was told by an outgoing coworker… To expect certain things of this physician and that it’s very common for him to come into our office and chat about his sex life, his dating life, ask you about yours… That was literally my first morning of my first day I was told that… Encompass was aware of it,” said one of the former employees.
Encompass Health’s Response
Encompass Health provided a statement in response to these allegations, stating that it does not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation within its workplace.
“The company was made aware of certain allegations of improper conduct in December of 2022 and early this year, which were thoroughly investigated and promptly and appropriately addressed.”
The company asserted that the senior physician in question was not an employee but worked at the hospital. They stated that he had his permission to provide patient care revoked, and the “executive at the Colorado Springs Rehabilitation Hospital referenced in the charges,” namely the CEO, Schaefer, is no longer with the organization.
The women involved plan to file a lawsuit. Their attorney, Joshua Friedman, argues that the senior physician’s status as a contractor, rather than a W2 employee, is irrelevant, as the provider had significant influence and power over their clients, which was sanctioned by hospital management.
Even as the nine women await the conclusion of an investigation by the EEOC, their charges imply that the years of harassment came at a high cost to employees.