BY CAPRICE LAWLESS
New, federal-level unemployment changes are good news for adjunct faculty in the Colorado Community College System. Depending on your circumstances, you may qualify for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. That was not the case previously. It’s good news for adjunct faculty in the CCCS, as it is for all adjunct/contingent faculty throughout American higher education. The federal-level changes mean we may qualify for unemployment benefits between every semester, and that old nonsense about “reasonable assurance” is UI history.
New federal guidelines from the US Department of Labor, per the new Unemployment Insurance Program Letter No. 05-17, are the source of this good news. We have many people to thank for that letter and what it can do for us (more on that below). I know it sounds too good to be true, but it is. When I heard of the letter, I was skeptical, as well, but then several people I trust explained that this new letter means money, not just money talk, for us between semesters. In her Academe Blog post about the unemployment changes, AAUP’s director of external relations Gwen Bradley said the new guidance, “echoing themes raised with the department [of Labor] and articulated by the AAUP for years, explicitly acknowledged that ‘the employment model educational institutions follow has changed appreciably, particularly for institutions of higher education. In higher education the use of part-time instructors, often referred to as ‘adjunct’ or ‘contingent’ faculty, has increased significantly.’” Both Maria Maisto, director of the New Faculty Majority and Joe Berry of the Coalition for Contingent and Academic Labor, talked about the letter during their presentations at our Colo. Conf. Academic Freedom Symposium this spring. At the meeting they urged all adjunct/contingent faculty to apply for unemployment straightaway.
Many of my CCCS adjunct peers and I tried to get unemployment benefits through the State of Colorado just a few years ago. We left that experience not only empty-handed, but also demoralized and bah-humbugged just as the holidays were setting in. Fighting back anger at that unhappy episode, I decided to test the waters during this semester break on behalf of other adjunct faculty in the CCCS. What follows is my experience combined with some helpful advice. Unemployment offices operate slightly differently in each state, but the federal guidelines must be considered by each state. Steps you’ll need to follow in your state may differ, but the detail here will help you, regardless.
To begin, the Colorado Unemployment Benefits interface has been streamlined. It is not nearly as intimidating as it was three years ago, when, hopes high and finances low, we had tried to file claims. Even so, before you start, get yourself a tall latte and settle in for several hours of labor (yes, hours). You will need your pay stubs for the past 18 months, and you need to put them in chronological order. There is lots of math involved, so have your calculator handy. You’ll also need your driver’s license. Are the steps easy to follow? Yes. Are they annoying? Oh, yes. Will feelings of injustice stop you from time to time? Undoubtedly. But don’t let that stop you. If possible, apply with another adjunct faculty member to dispel the angst. Keep your eye on the prize: $200 to $300 a week, in most cases, until the next semester begins. Not to belabor the point (there’s that word again), but perhaps a little something in that latte might make the process less painful.
Keep in mind that throughout the time you are receiving unemployment from the State of Colorado, you’ll need to apply for several jobs each week. The new Colorado UI interface helps recipients in that regard. You can ask it to send job-opening notices that might suit you.
It took several hours of work, but, in the end, my claim went through and I qualified for $241/week! I was thrilled. The thrill lasted a good five minutes. Then, in a call from the Unemployment Office, I learned that, because I am teaching one, 10-week class this summer at FRCC, the wage I earn doing so cancels out the unemployment benefit. That is my circumstance because I snagged a course. Your circumstances may differ, however.
In a follow-up call to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment today, I asked two key questions of the spokesperson, to make sure my experience was not a red herring, and that you, when you apply, might get some real results this year:
How has the Colorado Dept. of Labor and Unemployment geared up for this change to help adjunct faculty in the CCCS?
CDLE Response: “The Division of Unemployment Insurance provided refresher training to staff who process claims and reviewed and updated procedure manuals, as appropriate.”
If an adjunct faculty member has no income between semesters, does he/she now qualify for UI in Colorado?
CDLE Response: “The question cannot be answered directly. The Division of Unemployment Insurance must determine if an individual qualifies to be paid UI benefits on a case-by-case basis. First, it has to be determined whether the adjunct faculty member’s situation meets the defined prerequisites for returning to work in the following term or semester. Then, the adjunct faculty member must meet all of the other weekly requirements, which includes having an income less than the weekly benefit amount paid to him or her.”
So, to summarize, your circumstances (e.g., no class to teach and no other income), may well qualify you for the UI benefit from the State of Colorado. You just have to follow the steps and see for yourself, as each case is different.
Now that I have a solid understanding of it and this positive experience, I will apply for unemployment the last day of the each semester. I may not get enough to put on a big Labor Day BBQ, but it will beat roasting carrots, putting them into hot dog buns, and reciting to guests my tired lecture on the power of imagination.
This change to the NLRB’s unemployment guidelines is long overdue. It’s lineage can be traced all the way back to the fierce adjunct activist Steve Street. Street passed away in 2012, but has become a patron saint or poet laureate of the adjunct labor movement. So important was he to the movement that the New Faculty Majority (NFM) renamed their initial push for the changes in unemployment law in his honor. Thus, “The Steve Street National Unemployment Compensation Initiative” served as a lightning rod, eventually bringing to the effort: Judy Olson with the National Education Association (NEA), Annie Wiegard and Jennie Shanker with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Joe Berry and Helena Worthen with the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), Richard Gomes of AAUP’s Contingent Faculty Committee, AAUP Senior Counsel Aaron Nisenson, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), to name a few.
Let this partial list of those who persisted on our behalf for many years inspire you to apply for unemployment this—and every—semester break. Each time you do so the process will grow easier for you. Remember, as well, that each application is a form of activism. Time spent on such tasks is never wasted; it counts. Apply today and let me know how it goes. I look forward to hearing about your success over a few cheap beers and carrot dogs.
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NOTE: A few weeks ago, I served as witness in an appeal hearing between Colorado’s UI Benefits office and an adjunct faculty member who teaches at two colleges, whose summer classes had been cancelled by administrators, and whose UI claims had, nevertheless, been denied. Using details from the DOL Program Letter #5–17 described above, we were able to get that denial reversed. We will share a bit of training on this process at our upcoming AAUP Chapters Faculty Un-Service next month at the Denver Press Club. If you are a CCCS faculty member, please join us to learn more about this, and about all the other work our AAUP chapters are doing to help steer things in a new direction.