Workers say the university’s patchwork, campus-by-campus response to coronavirus is confusing and dangerous.
University of North Carolina employees are moving forward with a lawsuit against the college and state Gov. Roy Cooper.
In their complaint, university employees claimed they were being forced to work even as novel coronavirus spread across campus. Even though UNC has since closed several of its campuses, college faculty and staff say they are still fighting for improved working conditions.
Zofia Knorek, the lead plaintiff and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus, told The Daily Tar Heel she recently attended a nine-hour long mediation conference on Zoom.
While the conference did not lead to a resolution, Knorek said the session has helped her better understand the university’s legal position.
“This all started based on the non-delegable duty that they have to provide us with a safe workplace,” Knorek said. “And UNC, they’ve shown us—time in and time out—that they won’t take care of us.”
Gary Shipman, an attorney for many other University of North Carolina employees, said he is continuing to seek a court-ordered injunction against the college.
Shipman asserted that even though the university has closed several campuses, many workers remain imperiled by coronavirus.
“The closure of some campuses to in-person instruction may impact the relief sought for workers on those campuses, but not the ones that remain open,” Shipman wrote in an e-mail.
The Daily Tar Heel notes that, during last week’s Zoom conference, Shipman and his clients expanded on what they wanted to see as settlement talks continue. Their demands include increased transparency, a reformation of policies relating to the mandatory use of PPE, and an administrative reconsideration of shared governance procedures.
In the lawsuit, filed August 10th, members of an education workers’ union reported that they were not given consistent safety guidance or provided with protective gear.
“Essential workers across UNC System campuses continue to report to work with inadequate protective equipment to ensure their safety,” UE150 said in a statement.
According to Knorek, the university must institute a system of shared governance, wherein faculty, students, and workers have more say in how campus operates amidst the pandemic.
Furthermore, Knorek seemed to suggest there cannot be an acceptable settlement without UNC first addressing such discrepancies.
“We don’t want to do this whole circus over again, where we’re screaming at the top of our lungs saying, ‘Hey, listen to us, we know what we’re talking about,’” she said. “And just have them not listen to us again and try to force this down our throats again.”
While UNC administrators have claimed they are doing their best to mitigate the spread of coronavirus across the campus system, educators say too little has been done—and too late.
Wendy Brenner, an associate professor of creative writing at UNC-Wilmington, told the Tar Heel that she receives daily e-mails from students who have contracted or otherwise been exposed to coronavirus and have had to leave campus to quarantine.
“It is no longer hypothetical,” Brenner said. “We’re not sitting around in summer talking about what will happen if some people get sick—it’s happening now.”
Brenner, who is teaching courses online this semester, said she cannot understand why UNC has not been more flexible and more permissive in letting instructors dictate their own course policies. She proposes that administrators automatically approve professors’ requests for virtual instruction, regardless of their particular campus’s decision to open or remain closed.
“The idea that you’re going to go about your business and then hundreds of people have [coronavirus],” Brenner said, “I just can’t fathom how this fits into their plans for a safe workplace.”