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Universities May Cut Adjunct Faculty to Avoid Paying Health Insurance

As Saturday’s “technical release” from our chums at the Department of Labor reminds us, Obamacare will require all companies, small businesses excluded, to provide health insurance to those working 30 hours per week or more in 2014. Along with some noise the IRS is making about how universities pay their faculty, this is causing some serious anxiety in higher education. 

In January, the Federal Register declared it “unreasonable” for colleges to treat their adjunct faculty as part-time workers despite the fact that many of them work more than 30 hours a week.

Currently, most universities only pay adjuncts for the time they spend literally teaching, and for office hours they hold. These instructors are usually stiffed for the time it takes to grade papers and tests, and for what can be a ferocious commute, as well. To make it a workable full-time position, many adjuncts have to hustle between several campuses over the course of a single day; policy often forbids them from teaching a full course load at any one school.

The IRS believes that compensating these instructors properly would mean that the

hours of service for adjunct faculty should be determined by crediting three hours of service per week for each course credit taught.

Colleges are trying to weasel out of extending health care to their currently uninsured instructors under The Affordable Care Act by reducing these employees’ hours. Youngstown College in Ohio even threatened to fire any adjunct instructors who work enough hours to make them eligible for health insurance.

Universities have been finding various ways to cut instructors’ pay and benefits for three decades. Government data compiled by John Curtis indicates the number of “contingent instructional staff” in American universities increased by 194.4% between 1975 and 2007. These are the poorly paid, unstable positions and they outpace by more than seven-fold the growth of full-time tenured positions: the well compensated, secure jobs that come with benefits.

Elaine McArdle dubs this phenomenon “the adjunct explosion.” The AAUP Contingent Faculty Index breaks down the process state-by-state.

New Faculty Majority President Maria Maisto called the IRS’s acknowledgement a “huge step forward” for adjunct labor. This is true, but it could also be a set back for adjuncts that lose their jobs or get their hours reduced as a result of it.

One solution? Maybe universities should stop paying their presidents and "star" professors and football coaches so much; start paying adjuncts better; and thereby do their own small part to tackle America's growing inequality problem.