Employees of the University of North Carolina are suing the higher education system over fears about their working conditions as fall semesters begin.

According to a report from the News & Observer, a group of 17 employees filed the class action lawsuit on Monday. The lawsuit cites the return of thousands of students to UNC System campuses and communities despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as putting professors, housekeepers and staff members at “an increased risk of exposure” to the coronavirus.

Included in the plaintiffs for the lawsuit are three UNC-Chapel Hill employees: housekeeper Jermany Alston, communications associate professor Michael Palm and graduate research assistant Zofia Knorek. Others in the lawsuit work for North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, Appalachian State University, UNC Wilmington and more.

Some of the plaintiffs are represented by the NC Public Service Workers Union, which released a statement Monday regarding the filing.

“Essential workers across UNC System campuses continue to report to work with inadequate protective equipment to ensure their safety,” it said.

Part of the lawsuit’s evidence is the system’s urgency at moving students to remote learning when North Carolina’s COVID-19 outbreak began in March. At the time UNC schools reduced their campus operations, less than 1,000 state residents were reported as having tested positive. Monday’s filing points to the state’s continued increase in positive cases and designation as a ‘red zone’ by the White House coronavirus task force as reasoning to remain.

In addition, the lawsuit cites a July letter from Orange County Health Department Director Quintana Stewart to UNC leadership, including Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, as evidence. In the letter, Stewart said the cluster of positive coronavirus cases seen at the Chapel Hill campus among athletics players and staff “was informative for how challenging it will be for the student population to practice the 3 W’s even with the best of intentions.” In the message, Stewart urged the university move its courses to an exclusively remote model for the first five weeks.

The legal measure is the latest step in requests from the UNC-Chapel Hill community for changes to campus operations or moving courses to entirely online for the fall semester. In July, a group of UNC housekeeping staff delivered a petition with 300 signatures requesting additional health and safety protocols be implemented, as well as more protective equipment be given to such employees. Ahead of the first day of classes on Monday, a group of UNC community members held a “die-in” protest on campus requesting classes be exclusively remote.

UNC System have expressed their plans for students to have in-person instruction at its universities as early as April. Its Board of Governors heard a presentation on the latest steps to protect public health from the coronavirus at its July meeting.

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