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.
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.
It’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.”