UNC System faces lawsuit over unsafe working conditions in pandemic

Employees at UNC system schools filed a lawsuit Monday over what they say are unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court,  seeks a restraining order preventing the system’s 17 schools from making its employees work under conditions they know to be unsafe. It names as defendants the UNC System, UNC Board of Governors and Governor Roy Cooper.  The plaintiffs, who include staff members like housekeepers and faculty at various UNC schools.

Gary Shipman, an attorney and former UNC-Wilmington trustee, is representing the employees. Though classes began Monday at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, Shipman said in a statement that the system has to change course to be sure to protect the safety of employees that it knows are at risk under the current re-opening plans.

“Everyone involved in making the decision to reopen these campuses did so with the knowledge that it places these Employees at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 than they would have otherwise been exposed to had the ‘status quo’ of limiting the number of students on campus and going completely on-line to start the Fall of 2020 had been maintained as it has been since March, 2020,” Shipman wrote in a statement. “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.  The decision has to be made to place the safety of these Employees and the communities where these campuses are located above the financial concerns that are associated with not returning all these students to these campuses.”

The suit, which seeks to become a class action, comes a week after  it was revealed the Orange County Health Department recommended that the UNC-Chapel Hill go online only in the Fall semester and limit on-campus housing to those who have no other place to go. Administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill decided to “stay the course” with their re-opening plans instead. They did not disclose the county health director’s recommendations to the UNC community or acknowledge them publicly until they had been reported in the media, a move that has drawn heavy criticism from students, faculty, staff and the community surrounding the university.

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin continued to defend those decisions Monday in a meeting with the school’s Faculty Executive Committee, saying administrators did not believe that a detailed e-mail outlining the health department’s recommendation from its director was the official position of the department and that she did not intend for the administration to share it publicly. He was surprised when the letter was later shared with public officials and became public, he said.

Read the suit filed Monday in its entirety here.

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