The Pulse

UNC System workers on dangers of return in COVID-19 pandemic: “They’re showing us what they feel about us.”

By: - July 17, 2020 8:00 am

Last week, when UNC-Chapel Hill announced 37 people in its athletic program had tested positive for COVID-19, Tracy Harter wasn’t surprised. It followed a pattern around the country of outbreaks among student athletes returning to campus ahead of the Fall semester.

“What is really mind-boggling is, if it wasn’t for the newscast, nobody would have known,” Harter said.

As part of the housekeeping staff at UNC-Chapel Hill tasked with cleaning apartments where the school’s football players stay, Harter assumed the school would tell her if there was an outbreak that might put she or her family in danger. Instead, the school only disclosed the dozens of infections when they made a public announcement about shutting down voluntary football practices for a week.

Jermany Alston, housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill

The incident sent a shock through workers throughout the UNC system, said Jermany Alston, another UNC-Chapel Hill housekeeper.

They wondered if they’d been exposed. Why hadn’t their employers warned them before they saw it on TV? Is this what they could expect in the coming semester? Were they expected to put themselves and their families at risk without so much as a heads-up about outbreaks?

“I have kids to go home to,” Alston said.

Alston and Harter were just two of a large group of workers from schools throughout the UNC system who came together Thursday night to share their stories and frustration in a video call.  Workers, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from N.C. State, N.C. Central, Winston Salem State, UNC-Charlotte,  UNC-Wilmington, Western Carolina University and East Carolina University all told similar stories and expressed the same concerns.

With tens of thousands of students scheduled to return to the system’s 17 campuses next month, the workers say they are being given little information about the dangers of such a move and no seat the table in discussions of how their universities will handle it. A largely low-wage work force made up of many Black and Latinx people, the workers said they feel ignored, exploited and without support from a system that is badly mishandling its pandemic response before it even meets the large scale challenges that are coming.

“I’m frustrated, I’m mad, I’m ticked off,” said Lakisha Morgan, a housekeeper at N.C. State.  “We ask questions. We don’t get answers.”

The lack of transparency is scary, Morgan said — and many are too afraid of losing their jobs to question what seem like dangerous conditions with little institutional support.

“I have co-workers who are scared to speak up because of retaliation,” Morgan said. “I have co-workers who won’t say they don’t understand because of the fear that’s being put into them because of this COVID-19. We need better communication for everyone when it comes to any and everything that goes on at our universities that we work at.”

Crystal Biscoe, a housekeeper at North Carolina Central University, said that campus has seen infections that staff only heard about from each other. Beyond information, Biscoe said, they aren’t even being given the necessary equipment to do their jobs safely.


Jeff Eaddy

“We have to buy our own masks,” Biscoe said. “They’re not providing any for us. As an essential worker, I need a protective mask. That’s part of my job.”

David Brannigan, a long-time groundskeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill, said a largely minority workforce is being economically coerced into working under unsafe conditions to ensure the financial health of the university system.

“The only thing they’re paying attention to is the bottom line,” Brannigan said. “We cannot let their bottom line mean that some of us are going to flatline and die. It’s absolutely immoral.”

Jeff Eaddy, an undergraduate and worker at N.C. Central, said it’s insulting to call university workers essential but expect them to work without hazard pay or testing and treatment offered to students should they contract the disease.

“The system is showing us what they feel about us,” Eaddy said.

“As a student I want to be here, I want to come to learn,” he said. “I don’t want to do those things if I’m going to put someone else’s life in danger.”

Hanna Wondmagegn

Hanna Wondmagegn, a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said students facing a return to campus are concerned for their own health and safety — but also for campus workers. A number of them are cancelling their on-campus housing and looking off-campus to minimize danger and the impact on workers, she said — but the university hasn’t made it easy for them to do that and hasn’t been up-front about the fact that they can do so with no financial penalty until July 31.

“It’s representative of a larger pattern of our university refusing to be transparent with  every decision and in addressing students, faculty and community members,” Wondmagegn said. “In-state students, out of state students, international students — we’re all trying to make decisions for our health and the well-being of others. But how can we make decisions when UNC isn’t giving us much to go off of?”

“Why does it take students on UNC Twitter making noises to be heard? ” she said. “Why does it take us to do the work, digging up the data and information to figure this out? Why are we doing the work for y’all?”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.