10/06/2015

Waiting for paychecks: Adjuncts fight for fairness

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For many adjunct faculty, the start of the fall semester means some measure of relief from lean summer months when there are no classes to teach, and no income to boot. When schools issue their first paychecks late—more than a month after classes have begun—that relief can turn into a crisis.

"It's the worst time in the year for me to go without a paycheck," says Zachary Jones, an adjunct professor of geography and member of the Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers. That's because, like adjuncts in 48 other states, Jones has no guaranteed access to unemployment insurance over the summer.

The AFT, the nation's largest union of adjunct faculty, is working to fix this, urging the Department of Labor to recognize adjuncts as eligible for unemployment assistance. The AFT is circulating a petition for fair and timely payments.

Although universities say paychecks must wait while they sync their records, the delay can be a disaster for adjuncts like Christopher Miles. He teaches composition and world literature at the University of Alaska, and with a wife and two children he has plenty of bills to pay. Miles will be paying late fees this month because his first fall paycheck didn't arrive until late September. And, as everyone else in Fairbanks was winding up the fall by winterizing their engines and getting snow tires for their cars, Miles had to wait.

Worse, he feels as though the university, by delaying his pay, is telling him his work "isn't worthy or valuable. It just really kills morale."

At least Miles was able to teach last summer. Many adjuncts find there are not enough classes to go around, so they turn to unemployment insurance to bridge the gap. But there are "enormous discrepancies" in who gets approved for unemployment payments and who doesn't, says Anna Neighbor, an art professor and member of United Academics of Philadelphia. Her request for payments was denied.

Neighbor's institution, like many others, considers a letter of assignment to fall classes (not a contract) "reasonable assurance" of employment, even when the adjunct is effectively jobless over the summer; that designation makes adjuncts ineligible for unemployment payments. Only two states—California and Washington—guarantee unemployment for contingent faculty.

With just one early summer class and no unemployment payments, money's been tight for Neighbor, who is a single mother and sole provider. She had to delay repairing her leaky roof and dropped her health insurance because she couldn't pay the premiums.

At the unemployment office, "As soon as you say, 'I work for a university,' there are a lot of assumptions that you have to work against," says Neighbor. Most people think professors are well-paid, middle-class people—not people who are scraping to get by. Educating caseworkers and working through the appeals process when initial requests for unemployment insurance are refused is too onerous for most faculty to persist. So Neighbor and her colleagues get creative. A few have gained notoriety as the professorial lifeguards at the local pool, and another became a bike messenger for the summer.

UAP is working to change this precarious approach to making ends meet. The AFT local, which represents adjuncts at several institutions in Philadelphia, has held workshops and counseled individual adjuncts, urging them to apply for unemployment insurance and helping them through the process; AFT affiliates in Michigan and Ohio have also recently run these workshops.

Success—avoiding the financially disastrous limbo of late paychecks and jobless summers—will come from a combination of local and national efforts.

Sign the petition to clarify unemployment rights for adjuncts.

[Virginia Myers]