Campus Workers Sue UNC System Over Unsafe Working Conditions

North Carolina university employees are suing the UNC System, saying working conditions are unsafe as tens of thousands of students return to campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Essential workers across UNC System campuses continue to report to work with inadequate protective equipment to ensure their safety,” the UE150, NC Public Service Workers Union said in a statement Monday.

Some university employees, including housekeepers and other campus workers, are provided one or two masks per week and many don’t have access to face shields or gowns, according to the union. And the universities’ safety measures have proved to be “inadequate” as multiple workers have tested positive for COVID-19, the union said.

The policy failures also “inevitably fall hardest on Black and Brown workers’ shoulders, putting them at risk during a pandemic that disproportionately impacts their health,” the union said.

The group, which represents housekeepers, professors and other staff, is asking the court to require that the UNC System “fulfill its non-delegable duty to provide conditions of employment and a place of employment free of hazards that are likely to cause serious harm, even death, to employees,” according to the union.

‘Something Needs to be Done’

Jermany Alston, UNC-Chapel Hill housekeeper, union member and lead plaintiff, has been working throughout the summer to keep residence halls clean for students’ return. She helped lead a protest and deliver demands to university administrators explaining the threat that university workers face every day when they go to work.

“We bring UNC the concerns and the administrators say they’re going to fix it, but nothing ever comes of it,” Alston said in a statement. “It gets swept under the rug.”

She said workers are scared for their health, but are also scared to complain.

“UNC doesn’t care about us but we are here helping them out, and we could put our families in jeopardy,” Alston said. “It’s sad. Something needs to be done one way or another.”

Herb Richmond, director of UNC-CH’s Housekeeping Services Department, said in a statement to The News & Observer recently, “I understand their uneasiness because being a front-line worker during a pandemic is frightening.

“I think about their well-being every day and it’s more important now than ever that we stay vigilant and protect each other.”

Richmond said he was talking with campus leaders about how UNC-CH can adapt to address their concerns and provide crews with the protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely and feel comfortable on campus.

The lead plaintiffs include members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150 and members of the North Carolina American Association of University Professors. The group is represented by Wilmington-based attorney Gary Shipman, a former UNC Wilmington Board of Trustees member.

The lawsuit comes after weeks of campus protests and petitions from university students, staff and faculty who are concerned about universities’ reopening plans and fear COVID-19 will spread during the fall semester. Local health officials in Orange County have also advised against starting in-person classes in August and students living in dorms at this stage of the pandemic. And Chapel Hill leaders worry that student behavior off-campus is putting the college town and community at risk.

Classes Started Mnday at UNC, NC State

The UNC System moved classes online and shut down residence halls when there were less than 10 cases reported in North Carolina in the spring. Now, universities are reopening with some in-person classes and students living in dorms when the state is reporting thousands or hundreds of new cases daily and more than a thousand people are hospitalized.

“Things are far worse now than in March, 2020, and we contend that the law does not permit the University of North Carolina system or the Governor to force these Employees to work in conditions that place them at an increased risk of getting sick, being unable to work, being hospitalized, and even dying,” Shipman said in a statement Monday.

Hundreds of cases have also been reported among students, employees and outside workers on UNC System campuses since March. Most recently, UNC-Chapel Hill reported more than 40 cases on campus in the past three weeks.

UNC System leadership has maintained that universities are reopening safely this fall with adjustments to campus operations and guidelines in place to protect students, faculty and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

Students have moved into dorms at several universities across the state and in-person classes began at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and other UNC System schools on Monday. Some institutions, including UNC Pembroke and Fayetteville State University, started on Aug. 5.

This lawsuit is “a safety net, an attempt to keep us from going over a cliff,” UNCW lead plaintiff Associate Professor Wendy Brenner said in a statement.

The case was filed in Wake County and seeks to be a class-action lawsuit.