Taking COVID-19 Plans to Court

North Carolina public university employees hope a lawsuit will make their governing board take seriously their coronavirus concerns.

August 13, 2020
 
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The University of North Carolina System and its campuses are facing a potential class-action lawsuit from students, faculty and staff members over plans to reopen dorms and hold some classes face-to-face.

In many cases, students already have returned to campus and started their coursework. The lawsuit, filed in a Wake County, North Carolina, court, also serves as a motion for a temporary restraining order against the university for failing to do all it can to protect employees from COVID-19.

The filing follows vocal faculty opposition to the system's stance on reopening. Some Chapel Hill campus professors even wrote an open letter to students, telling them to stay home this fall. Students, too, have held "die-ins." Staff members and other employees continue to share concerns about their own safety, such as whether housekeepers tasked with maintaining quarantine dorms will be given face shields and other enhanced personal protective equipment.

The state university system is putting employees at an "increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, a virus that is known to cause illness, hospitalization and death, by reason of the decision to adopt plans to return to 'on-site' campus operations and therefore, return tens of thousands of students to each of these campuses and the communities in which they are located," states the lawsuit. In so doing, the university is abandoning its "non-delegable" duty of keeping employees safe.

The system and its campuses "cannot, in the face of this pandemic, provide conditions and places of employment safe or 'free from' recognized hazards associated with COVID-19 by returning students to these campuses and the communities in which they are located under the current plans," the suit says, "where they will live in poorly ventilated dormitories and classroom spaces, be expected (as college-age students) to fully comply, both on-campus and off-campus, with the 'mandatory' mask and 'social distancing' rules."

Echoing common criticism of the university's plan to reopen, the lawsuit notes that North Carolina coronavirus case counts are much higher now than they were in March, when the university moved to remote instruction in the first place.

A spokesperson for the system declined comment, saying it does not speak publicly about pending litigation.

Gary Shipman, the 17 initial plaintiffs' lawyer, said the group has been "inundated with calls from concerned faculty and staff members about joining." They've "literally communicated with hundreds of concerned UNC System employees."

If the case is certified as a class action, all system employees will be represented.

For now, Shipman said the group of 17 is seeking "nothing more than what the law requires," namely that the system as an employer complies with its legal duty to provide a safe workplace, free from the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

One specific, related request is that the court enter an order permitting anyone who can work remotely to do so. Currently there is no systemwide policy to that effect.

"Campus by campus, some are still be required to teach in person," Shipman said of faculty members and graduate students. "Some are being permitted to work or teach remotely. We want a uniform right on the part of employees who want to work remotely to work remotely."

John Hedlund, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at North Carolina State University and a member of the NCSU Graduate Worker Union, signed up as a representative from his campus. He said he's been granted permission to teach remotely this semester by his department, but that too many of his colleagues across the university haven't been as fortunate.

"Housing is probably what I'm most concerned about," he said. "It's basically a disaster waiting to happen."

Hedlund continued, "This is really about the folks that do have to be on campus, including students and, in large part, workers who have to be in close contact with students on a regular basis -- housekeepers who clean dorms as well as academic buildings."

North Carolina's 16 public universities have taken particular criticism for planning to keep dormitories at full capacity, against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that that configuration is highest-risk. The reduced capacity dorms are seeing this fall is a result of students studying from home, not social distancing arrangements.

Local agencies have spoken out against reopening plans, as well; the Chapel Hill campus last week shared that it had received a letter from the Orange County health commissioner, advising it to limit campus housing to at-risk students and go all-online for at least the first five weeks of classes.

Instead of going fully virtual, Chapel Hill increased the number of courses with hybrid capacity to limit on-campus classroom occupancy to only 30 percent. It reduced residential capacity to 64 percent -- again, mostly as a result of student contract cancellations -- and increased its COVID-19 testing capacity and transit and parking options.

Other campuses have taken similar measures, but they remain open for business in many respects. The system's board maintains that campuses should reopen and that it has ultimate authority on that decision.

Hedlund said he blamed the board for not taking safety seriously enough, but said that "individual institutions are not blameless. They could have pushed back."

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