Affordable Care Act and Contingent Faculty: Get informed, get organized

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

While many of the rules around the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) have yet to be written, and key pieces don’t actually go into effect until 2014, some public colleges and universities already are scrambling to avoid the cost of providing health benefits to more employees, as they fear may be required of them, or the possible penalties for not providing those benefits.

Their not-so-thoughtful solution? Unilateral, across-the-board cuts to working hours and class assignments for contingent faculty. Already this year, thousands of non-unionized contingent faculty at places like the Community College of Allegheny County (Penn.) and Palm Beach State College (Fla.) are suffering new restrictions on class assignments—and, of course, income too.

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But it hasn’t happened everywhere, and especially not in places where well-organized unionized faculty are armed with good information about the new health reform law. Take inspiration from Oakton Community College near Chicago, where an IEA/NEA-affiliated union of contingent faculty has forestalled any immediate cuts. After rallies and speeches at two spring meetings of Illinois community college presidents and trustees this spring [ed note: pictured above], Oakton’s adjunct union members heard no new faculty would be hired to replace them, and summer classes were assigned normally.

These kinds of cuts aren’t just bad for contingent faculty—although they are, and that includes people with 30 years of experience at Oakton, said Barbara Dayton, president of its Adjunct Faculty Association. They’re also bad for students. “Obviously, if you’re replacing an experienced teacher with an inexperienced one, it’s going to effect the quality of the class,” Dayton said.

Class caps would affect about 80 faculty members at Oakton, which relies heavily on the use of contingent faculty members—like so many public colleges and universities these days. About 65 percent of the faculty is contingent, which means they work from semester to semester, often for low pay. Most teach multiple classes, so that they can cobble together a living wage.

“People need to challenge unilateral, thoughtless, selfish acts,” urged Beverly Stewart, an IEA Board of Representative member. And it is selfish, she noted, for colleges to cut the wages of their lowest-paid educators. And it is thoughtless, she added, for them to do so without knowing all the facts about the ACA.

So what are the facts? The fact is the law creates the possibility of a penalty for large employers, those with at least 50 full-time employees during the previous calendar year, that do not offer health benefits for full-time employees and their dependents. According to the ACA, a full-time employee is one that works an average of at least 30 hours a week during any given month, but the law does not specify how employers should count those hours. Regulators know that for contingent faculty, total hours include those spent inside the classroom and outside.

Federal regulators are still developing the rules specific to contingent faculty, and NEA has been part of the conversation. The question of hours is complicated, and certainly no one answer will work for every class and every campus. While regulators say employers should use a “reasonable method,” faculty should take the opportunity now to speak up and tell administrators what looks reasonable to them.

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