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Downsizing adjuncts’ workload

Colleges jump the gun on Affordable Care Act and definition of 'full-time' work 

The Affordable Care Act will open the door for millions of American workers and their families to gain access to affordable health insurance beginning in 2014. But some college administrations are panicking at the thought that their poorly compensated adjuncts might be among them.

On Nov. 29, Kate Henderson, an adjunct professor in the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Health at New Jersey's Kean University, got a terse e-mail from her employer informing her that she would not be teaching her usual three courses next semester. One of her fully enrolled courses would be assigned to a new hire.

Henderson soon learned that 210 of her 1,200 adjunct colleagues had received similar notifications, with apologies "for the inconvenience." The university is cutting the adjuncts' maximum load from three three-credit courses per semester (Fall and Spring) to two.

Although the administration says the policy change is a matter of managerial prerogative, Henderson, president of the Kean University Adjunct Faculty Federation, believes the change is a misguided reaction to measures in the Affordable Care Act.

Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act levies penalties against large employers who do not offer affordable insurance coverage to their full-time employees. The act defines a "full-time" employee as one who is employed on average at least 30 hours per week. The penalties apply when a full-time employee receives a subsidy to buy insurance in a state's exchange. 

The Community College of Allegheny County (Pa.) notified its faculty and staff in mid-November that it would cut the workloads of some 400 employees in order to "comply with the new legislation's conception of part-time employment." The college is worried that it might be hit with $6 million in penalties in 2014.

Youngstown State University in Ohio also recently announced similar defensive actions with a twist: Any adjunct whose load goes over 29 hours will be fired.

The AFT has been carefully tracking the Affordable Care Act since its inception, and has submitted comments to the U.S. Treasury Department on the 30-hour rule in particular.

"Federal regulators have not yet issued rules on how full-time status will be determined for contingent faculty," says Amy Clary of the AFT research and strategic initiatives department. AFT national staff met recently with federal regulators to discuss this issue as part of an AFL-CIO-led coalition of unions. The AFT recommended that 12 credit hours per semester be regarded as the equivalent of full time for the purpose of the employer penalty, but the federal regulators have not yet issued a decision on the matter.

"Because the federal government has not yet defined full-time status for contingent faculty, any employer who cuts contingent faculty workload is doing so pre-emptively, without the benefit of complete information," says Clary.

On Jan. 22 and 23, the AFT will sponsor a one-hour webinar to answer questions about contingent faculty and healthcare. (See sidebar for more information.)

"Institutions like CCAC don't know what to do, so they're acting on advice of consultants, trying to plan for the worst," says John Dziak, president of AFT Local 2067, which represents the full-time faculty at the Community College of Allegheny County. He also serves as a trustee on the Allegheny Schools Health Insurance Consortium, which is the source of faculty's health benefits.

Very few adjuncts around the country have health benefits from their employer, so the Affordable Care Act will help them, says Clary. "Adjuncts are so poorly paid that they would almost certainly qualify for subsidies on the exchange that would make coverage—even family coverage—affordable."

For now, the affected Kean adjuncts will be filing for unemployment benefits due to a workload reduction, says Henderson. "And, the university will advertise for hundreds of new adjuncts they will have to process, hire and train for the spring semester. It makes no sense," she complains.