The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this week filed a lawsuit on behalf of several former female employees who allege that the owner of two resorts along the Columbia River sexually harassed them over a period of several years dating back to at least 2014.
In the filing, Pirfil Cam, who co-owned Bonneville Hot Springs and Carson Hot Springs Resort with his daughter, Marfa Scheratski, is accused of subjecting Holly Nelson and several other female employees to “lewd sexual comments, sexual propositions, sexual innuendos, and remarks about their clothing and bodies.”
The suit also claims the employees were subjected to “unwanted touching such as kissing, hugs, rubbing of their arms and hands, pressing up against and/or touching their breasts.”
Cam is also accused of touching and pulling female employees’ hair, and grabbing them by the hands, arms or wrists and not letting go, forcing the women to pull away. According to the lawsuit, one employee claims Cam pressed his crotch against her on several occasions.
A message left for Cam and Scheratski’s lawyer, Sharon Peters, on Wednesday was not immediately returned. In response to an email seeking comment, Scheratski wrote, “We do not comment regarding pending litigation.”
Cam is also accused of asking female employees to come with him to areas of the resorts where there was no video surveillance. According to the lawsuit, Cam also allegedly “trapped” female employees in rooms or secluded areas of the resort.
The EEOC lawsuit claims that the Bonneville and Carson resorts have violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employment discrimination based on gender.
The lawsuit alleges several employees reported the owner’s sexual harassment to supervisors and management, but claim that the company did not take appropriate action to stop the behavior.
Both resorts are in the West Columbia River Gorge, and until a few years ago were owned by Cam and Scheratski, who was general manager of both resorts. Bonneville Hot Springs was sold in November 2016 to Foundations Recovery Network, a mental-health and substance-abuse rehabilitation facility. Carson Hot Springs resorts is still owned by Cam and Scheratski.
Holly Nelson, a massage therapist who formerly worked at Bonneville Hot Springs, and her lawyers, Greg Ferguson and John “Jack” Green, initiated the claim with the EEOC in 2016, a few months after she resigned from her position at Bonneville.
According to the EEOC lawsuit, Nelson quit her job at the Bonneville resort in February 2016 after management’s “inability to control Cam’s behavior made the working conditions so intolerable that [she] felt forced to resign.”
“These resorts were two of the largest employers in this rural community. No worker should be forced to choose between earning a living and preserving personal safety and dignity,” EEOC senior trial attorney Teri Healy said in a news release sent out Monday.
Earlier this year, facing a three-year statute of limitations to sue, and with January’s government shutdown making it uncertain if the EEOC was going to file suit, Ferguson and Green filed a separate lawsuit against Cam and Scheratski on Nelson’s behalf in Skamania County Superior Court in Stevenson. In this lawsuit, Ferguson and Green alleged Nelson had been subjected to sexual harassment and assault and battery during her employment at Bonneville.
Ferguson said they submitted to the EEOC the names of over a dozen women employed at some time at the Bonneville and Carson resorts whom they suspected had also been subject to sexual harassment. The EEOC investigation took about a year and a half, according to Ferguson.
“Because the owner of the business was the harasser, it’s difficult for Ms. Nelson and the other victims to report the allegations without fear of reprisal or retaliation. That was part of the problem and that was why some of the reports of conduct were delayed, because it was Mr. Cam himself that was the harasser,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said that after allegedly experiencing sexual harassment from Cam, Nelson reported his behavior to Scheratski.
Ferguson and Green’s lawsuit also alleges that Scheratski “aided, abetted and incited discrimination, retaliated against women who complained, and failed to take any meaningful remedial action to prevent Cam’s sexually aggressive and predatory conduct.” The lawsuit seeks relief for past and future economic damages, attorney’s fees, and noneconomic or “emotional upset” damages.
Ferguson said the sale of the Bonneville resort in 2016 came a few months after the company had been given notice of Nelson’s intent to file suit, and he believes the sale may have been part of an attempt to dispose of assets.
This is not the first time the resorts have been sued for sexual harassment. In 2007, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Bonneville Hot Springs alleging sexual harassment and seeking relief for former Bonneville employee Christina Sibbett and several other female employees. The 2007 lawsuit claimed that Sibbett was harassed in retaliation for her complaints about sexual harassment and that she resigned due to the hostile environment.
EEOC attorney John Stanley worked on both the 2007 and current lawsuits against Bonneville, and he said that in both cases the alleged harasser was owner Pirfil Cam. Stanley noted several similarities between the allegations in both cases, including the way the owner allegedly invaded the personal space of female employees and subjected them to unwanted touching and unwanted comments. Bonneville Hot Springs settled the 2007 lawsuit and paid $470,000 to Sibbett and several other women.
“It’s a pattern that is very similar from the earlier case to the present case,” Stanley said. “We consider this a very important case given that there is a history with the owner and we do encourage former employees with information to contact us.”
The EEOC is seeking damages in the form of financial compensation for the affected women, back pay for Nelson, and action by Bonneville Hot Springs and Carson Hot Springs Resort to enact policies ensuring equal-opportunity employment.
The EEOC encouraged current and former employees who have information about sexual harassment at the resorts to contact EEOC Lead Attorney Teri Healy at 1-833-779-3986 or by emailing BonnevilleCarson@eeoc.gov.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.