The Perfect Storm for Adjuncts in Illinois

(This article appeared in the latest issue of the Illinois AAUP’s newspaper, Illinois Academe.)

By Keith R. Johnson, Oakton Community College

The Great Recession impacted everyone, but it contributed to a real hit for public college and university adjunct faculty. Pressures on budgets over decades have slowly increased higher education’s dependence on adjunct faculty. Now they are a majority of teachers at all levels, and an astonishing 80 percent at community colleges. They form a pool of poorly paid, qualified teachers who can be drawn on (or let go) as needed. But in 2013 new laws exacerbated this long term trend to pay a majority of faculty inadequately and deny them benefits and job security.

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) requires employers to provide health insurance for part-time employees who work at least 30 hours a week. The response of most administrations this spring was to unilaterally cut the hours of adjuncts below that limit, first calculated at 21 credit hours a year. Part-time faculty were faced with a double whammy: (1) less work and lower pay, while (2) being required to buy and pay for their own health insurance from their reduced income.

To many adjuncts, the inequity of their situation was dramatized in the action of administrations to make every effort to deny them a basic need, health insurance. Adjunct union member rallied and protested, picketing the meeting of community college presidents and filling Board of Trustee meetings to overflowing. The shock was mutual: adjuncts reeling from what they perceived as heartless and cruel administrative denial of their rights, and administrations who have long been asleep at the switch concerning their growing dependence on adjunct faculty. No longer would adjunct matters be managed by “business as usual” without a reaction.

To add to the perfect storm, the Biss Law (Public Act 97-0968) takes effect, penalizing a public college or other SURS entity that pays more than a fraction (40 percent) of an annuitant’s base salary before retirement. Many adjuncts are in fact annuitants; about one in four adjuncts at Oakton are semi-retired, a few of them former full-time faculty who stay on part-time after retirement. Administrations face another drastic choice in the face of this law: either develop substantial amounts of paperwork to monitor the hours of annuitants and their employment at any other SURS entity (for these hours add up), or again, simply fire all annuitants, as has the College of DuPage.

A study of the adjunct faculty at Oakton Community College (OCC) sheds some light on this situation. How many hours does an adjunct faculty member actually work? Enough to qualify as full-time for purposes of Obamacare? Data from the Illinois Community College Board shows that the average adjunct at OCC is slightly above 7 credit hours a semester, compared with 10 for full-time faculty. This is just short of the three-quarters that the federal guidelines set for full-time. But 55 percent of the adjuncts report they “Find you are working full-time at a part-time job” on our survey (142 adjuncts responded to this spring’s survey). A majority also report “Meeting your expenses is a constant concern/worry.” A large majority of OCC’s adjuncts also report that they desire a full-time position, leaving the labor pool that has been constructed for them over time. In this desire, they mirror adjunct faculty survey results nationally.

Unfortunately, given current and foreseeable future economic conditions, meeting this desire is not possible. Some positive steps have been worked out at the community college level, with Illinois employers offering health insurance to at least some adjuncts, as at Oakton. Other employers have adamantly refused to help or change in the face of the new law. The positive side of this perfect storm is that many adjunct needs, as revealed in the survey, can be met within the fiscal limits placed on Oakton or any other employer. While all the areas questioned were reported to be important, including pay, job security, benefits and inclusion, inclusion was given the highest rating.

Respect, recognition, equal treatment and access will not bankrupt any employer. However, they will require a massive change in campus culture that will be resisted and denied, judging from past experience. The problem of adjunct faculty has been building for decades, and it will not be resolved in a short time. But now that adjuncts are more visible, united and pressing their demands, we are moving in the right direction.

Keith Johnson is an Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Oakton Community College. His Open Letter to the Oakton community reporting his survey results in greater detail can be accessed at the Adjunct Faculty Association’s website at http://www.oaktonafa.org/KJohnson.pdf

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