UNC System Employees File Lawsuit Seeking Safe Working Conditions During Pandemic

Aug 11, 2020

Credit Courtesy Jon Gardiner / UNC-Chapel Hill

A group of university staff and faculty have filed a lawsuit against the UNC System to seek safer working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. The plaintiffs are asking for a Wake County Superior Court judge to grant them class action status, and to step in on behalf of all UNC System employees.

Their legal complaint argues the UNC System has a duty as an employer to provide a workplace "free from hazards," and that measures currently in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19 do not sufficiently meet that legal obligation. The lawsuit names all UNC System universities as defendants.

UNC Wilmington creative writing professor Wendy Brenner is a plaintiff and said she feels uneasy knowing that most of her university's residence halls are at full capacity.

"I have a larger concern which is the safety for the housekeepers, the maintenance staff, anyone else who has to work or spend any length of time in those dorms," Brenner said.

Wilmington-based attorney Gary Shipman filed the complaint Monday, as some UNC System universities began their first day of classes. Shipman is a former member of the UNC Wilmington Board of Trustees.

Over the past few weeks, Shipman said he received calls from UNC System employees seeking legal advice about their concerns that they could contract the coronavirus and face serious health risks as students return to campuses.

Members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union and the American Association of University Professors helped Shipman organize and enlist plaintiffs for the lawsuit.

Lawsuit Argues UNC System's Reopening Plan Is Risky

The UNC System Board of Governors has made it clear that all of its 16 universities are expected to reopen their campuses to some in-person instruction this fall, with most students present on campus and residence halls in operation. Board Chair Randy Ramsey has said any decision to change that mode of operation will be decided by the UNC System's new President Peter Hans, not by university chancellors.

The complaint argues that by broadly reopening campuses to students, some university employees will inevitably contract the coronavirus, and statistically, some fraction will die of COVID-19.

"[The UNC System] cannot in this situation, provide a workplace with conditions of employment that is free of the risk of contracting this virus — it's impossible," Shipman said in an interview.

Shipman said the group is calling on the UNC System to "stop the ascension of students to campus until there is either a plan that health care professionals agree does provide conditions and a place of employment free of recognized risk — or wait [to open]."

The complaint does not specifically ask for universities to be forced to offer all virtual classes or to cease reopening. Instead, the lawsuit asks for the court to decide whether university employees face health risks due to campus reopenings — and if so, for the court to provide injunctive relief to ensure safe working conditions.

"It is not the obligation of the employee, and therefore their lawyer, to show the university how they are supposed to do their job," Shipman said. "It's their job. It's not our job."

The seventeen plaintiffs who signed on to the lawsuit include employees of Applachian State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University, UNC Asheville, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, UNC Wilmington and Western Carolina University. If they are granted class action status, they will represent all UNC System employees.