Adjunct faculty: Living below the poverty line with no unemployment benefits

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

When Charmian Tashjian closes her classroom door each May, she can’t say for sure when she’ll be returning. Maybe in the fall? Maybe not. There are no guarantees in the working life of an adjunct professor.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

Since 2013, NEA has sought to help Tashjian and the tens of thousands of other faculty who don’t know where they’ll get their next paycheck to qualify for unemployment benefits, like other out-of-work Americans. Most recently, this summer NEA President Lily Eskelsen García wrote to U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, asking the department to update its 29-year-old guidance on this issue. García reminded him that they’re talking about people who earn poverty wages.

“I recognize that this kind of administrative work takes time, but our contingent faculty have waited for years for some action by the Department that remedies their perilous and contingent economic status,” she wrote. “The requested updated guidance is an NEA priority. I would ask that the Department make it a priority as well so that our contingent faculty can receive the unemployment benefits to which they are clearly entitled.”

Two states regularly provide unemployment benefits to adjunct faculty whose classes have ended for the foreseeable future: California and Washington. The others rely on guidance from the federal government as the basis of their regular denials. That guidance suggests that contingent faculty have “reasonable assurance” of returning to their jobs.

But, as Tashjian, an adjunct professor of music and humanities at two Chicagoland colleges and president of the NEA-affiliated Harper College Adjunct Faculty Association, points out, her future assignments are far from certain. They depend entirely on student enrollment, which has been declining for years, state funding (also declining), and the whims of college administrators.

And Tashjian is far from alone. Since the Department of Labor last issued its guidance on this issue in 1986, the academic workforce has been transformed. Tenured professors are growing increasingly rare. Indeed faculty members working off the tenure track now account for 75 percent of faculty in the U.S., and more than 50 percent of all faculty also are part-time employees, which means they often must cobble together a living wage through multiple jobs on multiple campuses.

WhoNeedsFacultyIt’s a difficult life for those employees — and there also are consequences for students. Contingent faculty typically don’t have offices or office hours, and they often are unavailable to advise and mentor students. A recent report called “Back to School in Higher Ed: Who Needs Faculty?” from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), of which NEA is a member, outlines the impact on students from the growing disinvestment in full-time, tenured faculty.

García’s recent letter isn’t the first from NEA on this issue. Former president Dennis Van Roekel also wrote to the department to urge action, and NEA, AFT, and other unions jointly sent a detailed, 14-page letter in June 2014. NEA and other union staff also have met with DOL staff to encourage action.

This week, Assistant Secretary Portia Wu responded to García letter, writing, “I assure you that the Department takes this issue very seriously,” and adding that it is must “assess all aspects before determining a future direction.”

Reader Comments

  1. California Universities advanced their fees relentlessly during the recession. Their answer to decreases in the availability of state funds was to increase out-of-state students proportionally. In other words, taxpayers were subsidizing nontaxpaying families. We observed many building projects at my son’s CSU campus and at the UC campus near us. There were faculty pay increases while public school teachers were forced to agree to salary cuts. Too bad they did not take better care of the adjunct faculty they rely upon.

  2. If the situation of such employment is known, why do people ‘sign up’? It would seem logical to find a job where you can make a living and not complain about what you sign up for. Do something else. Then, schools will be forced to make a decision about how to manage their employees.

    1. They sign up in the hope that a full time job will become available. Adjuncts are usually “in the loop” and more likely to score the full time position with benefits, so they teach at multiple colleges and hope for the best.

  3. I agree 100% with what we are pushing for and worked in this environment for 15 years as a professor in the teaching credential program. It was so difficult not having an office or a place to hold office hours and at the same time expected to maintain university standards. One time, I held a study session for a special group of students who were instructional aides who were in a supportive cohort situation and completing their credential embedded within the early childhood education degree program. There was no way to have access to any place on the university campus, so I held it in my kindergarten classroom and all 40 students showed up to prepare for their midterm exam on English Language Development theory and practice. I walked this line every quarter for 15 years as I am sure the other adjunct professors around our country have done and are doing today. We do it for the common good and for our students. I feel resentful about this issue as I feel resentful about the increases in tuition and the inhumane practices by banks and the U.S. Government with regards to student loans. How can the Universities justify raising tuition when they pay so many of their professors so little and they are actually saving money because they do not have to care about their employees and provide them benefits nor retirement benefits. And yet the actual physical environments of the colleges and universities in the form of buildings, parking facilities and landscape is growing in leaps and bounds. This is crazy practice. We start early in kindergarten to push the idea of preparing for college and career readiness and we ask the parents to send their kids to college or university, and to prepare for the crowd that attempts to go, this is how we treat their faculty. And the amount of student debt these kids and their families are taking on to perpetuate this practice is a crime. The banks and government are also to blame for this. The American People saved the banks from themselves and the thanks we received for this gallant effort was to increase the interest rates on student loans. Sure there is a miniscule amount of help for the really poor in this area, but for the rest of us who are struggling with high costs of living, as is the case in California, students and their parents will be paying for their higher education costs for the rest of their lives and the young will not be able to jump start their own lives. What is the alternative, to give up and not become educated? There needs to be adjustments made all around: the treatment of all faculty members, the cost of tuition, the cost of student loans, creating paths for more to become educated and creating paths for more professors to be permanent members of these revered places of higher learning we call universities and colleges. And, by the way, I never received any benefits, not even parking privileges or help with photocopying, during those 15 years. I did it to advance my field and to make a little extra cash so I could send my own kids and my husband to college and I am still paying on student loans and about to retire from the teaching profession. We need adjustments in all directions. Fight On!

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