Lawsuit claims UNC System faculty & staff at increased COVID risk by returning to campuses

Published: Aug. 10, 2020 at 10:15 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2020 at 11:24 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Lawyers on behalf of UNC System faculty and staff filed a lawsuit Monday in Wake County Superior Court.

In the lawsuit, Wilmington law firm Shipman and Wright claims that UNC employees across the system’s 17 universities, including ECU, are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are required to return to campuses that are reopening to students.

The legal action demands the university and the state government give employees a safe workplace by offering instruction online beginning in fall 2020.

In a news release, Attorney Gary K. Shipman said the lawsuit requires nothing more than the law requires that, “the University of North Carolina and its constituent institutions and the Governor of North Carolina provide Employees a safe workplace; one that is free from the increased risks of exposure to COVID-19; and to insure that these Employees maintain their Constitutional right to work and earn a livelihood; and continue to enjoy ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ 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. 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.”

Despite increased concerns since March, Shipman said essential workers across UNC System campuses continue to report to work with inadequate protective equipment to ensure their safety.

The complaint states that back on March 11th, the UNC Board of Governors made a decision to stop in-person classes and cleared out the dorms and that was with 100 cases and 1 reported death in the state. Now, as those numbers have grown significantly, in-person classes are still happening for the fall semester.

Shipman referenced ECU when referring to COVID spread and clusters within university athletic saying, “Well before the majority of students returned to campuses, local health officials found COVID-19 clusters within athletics departments at (that we know of) UNC Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, Western Carolina University, NC A&T University, UNC Charlotte, and NC State University.”

Workers say the law requires all universities to provide employees a safe workplace. They said students returning to campus increases the risk of spread, which increases the risk to employees.

In-person instruction began Monday at ECU and other UNC System campuses. Classes began on August 5th at UNC Pembroke and Fayetteville State University. According to Shipman, the lawsuit comes as a last-resort option that UNCW lead plaintiff Associate Professor Wendy Brenner said was “a safety net, an attempt to keep us from going over a cliff.”

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