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As tens of thousands of students return to UNC campuses in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, faculty and staff are suing the UNC System over unsafe working conditions. The suit, which seeks class action certification, requests a restraining order preventing member institutions from forcing its employees to work in what they call unsafe conditions. 

The case was filed in Wake County Superior Court. Lead plaintiffs include members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union (UE Local 150) and the North Carolina American Association of University Professors. They are represented by attorney Gary Shipman, a former UNC Wilmington trustee. 

“UNC can’t force my clients to [return to work],” said Shipman in a statement. “Under the N.C. Constitution, they have the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ which includes the right to work and to enjoy the ‘fruits of their labor,’ not the increased risks of COVID.”

The lawsuit says workers face a “false dichotomy: go to work and risk exposure to COVID-19 or not go to work and risk termination of their jobs.” It also notes that the UNC System went all online by March 20 when there were fewer than 280 reported cases in North Carolina. There are now over 142,000 cases to date and the state is reporting around 1,500 new cases per day.

Every UNC undergraduate institution except UNC Charlotte has already welcomed students back to campus for the fall semester, and each university plans to operate dorms at normal capacity and hold some face-to-face classes. This puts the universities in the “highest risk” and “more risk” categories, as defined by the CDC

In an article published on Aug. 12, the UNC System says it plans to continue in-person instruction because “campus life offers the most comprehensive access to the learning and living experiences that lead to more fulfilling lives, research discoveries and medical breakthroughs, and a stronger North Carolina.”

The lawsuit comes after the UE Local 150 launched its “Safe Jobs Save Lives” campaign on April 3, calling for adequate protective equipment, the option to work remotely and a “seat at the table” for workers, among other demands. Since then, UNC workers including housekeepers at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State have petitioned their respective universities to ensure safe reopenings, but their requests have not been fully addressed by their respective administrations.

However, it’s not just employees who are criticizing UNC’s fall plans: on July 29, Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart sent a memorandum to UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz imploring him to move instruction entirely online or, at the very minimum, begin the first 5 weeks with remote instruction. The UNC community was not made aware of the recommendations until they were reported by the press. After the letter surfaced, UNC-CH increased its number of hybrid courses and reduced dorm capacity to 64 percent. However, as Inside Higher Ed points out, this was mostly as a result of students cancelling their housing contracts. 

‘Walking into a burning building’ 

As it stands now, students are entrusted to safeguard the health of their communities. Evidence already shows that this may not be a realistic expectation. 

UNC Pembroke and Fayetteville State started classes on Aug. 5, and many other institutions like UNC-CH and N.C. State began Aug. 10. In contrast with testing programs at Duke University, Wake Forest University, the University of Virginia and many other schools, no students in the UNC system were required to test negative for the virus before returning.

Appalachian State University, which starts classes on Aug. 17, already has 39 active cases: 8 employees and 31 students. As students streamed back to campus this week, one student reportedly found their dorm room hadn’t been cleaned after the last inhabitant moved out. 

During East Carolina University’s opening weekend before classes started on Aug. 10, over 20 parties were shut down for violating state restrictions on large gatherings, including one with about 400 people. The week before, 28 students and 2 employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

UNC-CH faculty chair Dr. Mimi Chapman wrote in a letter to Chancellor Guskiewicz that she saw video evidence of “a line of what appeared to be at least 50 sorority women coming out of an indoor, unmasked event.” A couple of weeks earlier, UNC Chapel Hill faculty published an open letter in the Charlotte Observer imploring students not to return to campus. The university, which began classes on Aug. 10, reported clusters in two campus dorms on Friday. The school reported ten sick students and one employee the previous week

Long before classes began, schools saw outbreaks in their athletics departments. In early July, 37 people in UNC-CH’s athletics department tested positive for the virus, yet housekeepers say they were not informed of the outbreak.

“I have cleaned the rooms that the football players have been in,” said UNC-CH housekeeper Jermany Alston, “and I don’t know what rooms the ones who tested positive were in or who has it or if I have come in contact with them. It’s scary for me because then I have to go home, and if I do have it, then I put my family at risk as well.” 

ECU athletic operations were interrupted in mid-July when 27 department members tested positive for the virus. Around the same time, five Charlotte 49ers and four North Carolina A&T student athletes tested positive for the virus. There have also been outbreaks in the NC State and Western Carolina University athletics departments. 

On the front lines at UNC Charlotte

While UNC Charlotte doesn’t begin its semester until Sept. 7, campus workers are already concerned about unsafe and impractical working conditions.

“Now they are trying to force us to start shifts at 3:00 a.m., which is impossible for our families,” said a UNC Charlotte housekeeper and UE Local 150 member. 

Building Environmental Services and Recycling (BESR) is planning to bring some workers in at 3:30 a.m. to clean before classes begin. “Some employees and managers will be asked to come in earlier to perform their duties to reduce the risk of contact with others and ensure key areas are cleaned and disinfected prior to additional employees and students arriving on campus,” explained university spokesperson Buffie Stephens. 

“My wife and I just have one vehicle,” said a BESR employee in a town hall hosted by UE Local 150. “They sent out an email asking what schedule we would prefer. I told them that it was going to work for me at all because it was a financial burden to have to buy another car all of a sudden. I really don’t think the administrative people are really looking at what impact this does to other people.”

A housekeeper who wishes to remain anonymous says the University should switch to completely remote instruction or move housekeepers to the third shift (10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.), at the very least. 

“80 percent of the housekeepers are women and we’re concerned about them being out in the middle of the night; it’s a safety issue,” he said. 

UNC Charlotte says they will provide workers who are in need of face coverings with disposable masks and “any PPE necessary to perform their job duties per CDC recommendations.” Students are also required to wear masks while indoors.

“[I am] most worried about the kids,” said a UNC Charlotte worker who also wishes to remain anonymous. “They’re not going to follow the rules as far as wearing face masks or not.” 

Back in March, the second person to test positive for COVID-19 at the University was a housekeeper at the Dubois Center at UNC Charlotte Center City. 

Spokesperson Buffie Stephens says the COVID-19 test is free for campus workers due to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. “Additionally, the State Health Plan, which provides employees’ insurance, has waived the cost of testing and medical treatment associated with COVID-19 for members,” she adds.

Chartwells, which employs UNC Charlotte’s dining hall workers, is paying for employees’ tests through its parent company Compass Group, according to Executive Chef at SoVi dining hall Tyler Creech.

Campus dining halls are actually looking to expand their workforce because they are eliminating all buffet-style stations and need extra workers to serve and sanitize. Plexiglass shields have been installed to protect servers and employees will be subject to temperature checks. 

The anonymous housekeeper says he’s worried about his coworkers’ exposure to the virus because many BESR employees are older, putting them at higher risk. UE Local 150 also points out that Black and Brown workers are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

Stephens says that “University cleaning staff will be responsible for cleaning a housing unit following a confirmed positive case of COVID-19.” Additionally, Housing and Residence Life staff will be trained to clean Maple Hall, where infected students are set to quarantine. 

As of Aug. 15, UNC Charlotte reports two positive cases on its main campus.

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