The numbers are alarming. The US Department of Labor has reported that in just over three months 44 million people, or approximately 28 percent of the US workforce, have filed for unemployment. In addition, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, over 10% of apartment households have yet to pay their rent in spite of receiving benefits from the CARES Act provisions, which expire at the end of July.
This is an American problem, but moreover, it is a catastrophe for America’s contingent, or “at-will” workers, who comprise approximately 30% of the US Labor force. Among these workers are 1.3 million “part-time,” “adjunct,” or contingent college instructors, representing 75.5% of US faculty. These faculty, hired term-by-term on an “as needed” basis generally work with few to no benefits, and are paid, on the whole, less than half of what the full-time colleagues make. Surveys have shown that even prior to the COVID-19 Epidemic, approximately one of four of these faculty were receiving some form of government assistance.
Though having to take on the literal overnight and often uncompensated training and conversion to remote, or fully online instruction, adjunct/contingent college instructors rose to the challenge, and were able to be paid through their Spring terms. Now that the Summer has arrived, instructors at many institutions of higher learning are facing layoffs which will extend through the Fall as many students, out of either financial need, or lack of comfort with remote learning, will either put off or abandon instruction. In addition, they await an uncertain picture in the Spring of 2021.
Beyond Spring 2021 is even less certain. The revenues collected by state and local governments to support education have sharply dropped, meaning without an influx of funding from other sources, college budgets will be sharply reduced. There will be fewer class offerings, fewer sections, and contingent instructors will lose the income that in many cases just kept them afloat.
The darkest part of this picture is that now in many states, as many adjunct/contingent faculties’ teaching assignments are considered completed, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Such presumption and denial is based on a false presumption that the offer of, or even the possibility of an assignment in a subsequent term represents “reasonable assurance” of future or continued employment. The presumption is the result of a false equation between High Education and K-12 teaching. Adjunct/Contingent faculty are not guaranteed work in the next term because their employment is based on enrollment, which unlike the K-12 system, fluctuates greatly. This longstanding practice has contributed to 30% of adjunct-contingent faculty living at or below the poverty line.
Some states, such as California, have recognized that the nature of adjunct/contingent teaching in Higher Ed means teaching from term-to-term, with no reasonable assurance of future employment, and as such, this enables these instructors and their families access to benefits which are often the one thing keeping them from absolute destitution.
The United States Department of Labor needs to recognize and acknowledge that adjunct/contingent faculty lack “reasonable assurance” of employment, as discussed in Section 3304(a)(6)(A) of the Federal Unemployment Tax Act. In light of the COVID19 crisis, the loss, not just to these faculty and their families, but to the US Higher Education System will be incalculable and lasting. Further, America’s main vehicle for innovation, economic success, and most of all, societal equity, will be irreparably harmed.
Moreover, the existing extension of unemployment benefits from 27 to 39 weeks needs to be expanded to a full 52 weeks or a year to help adjunct-contingent faculty, adjunct/contingent workers and the unemployed as a whole. Only with the security to pay for food, rent, utilities, and basic living expenses can Americans move ahead.
In closing, this is not an issue or an impending crisis to be addressed later—the time is now. The expiration of CARES Act provisions is but weeks away. The devastation of the COVID19 need not be further amplified by inaction.
The American Federation of Teachers Adjunct/Contingent Faculty Caucus
Geoff Johnson President William Lipkin Vice President
Linda Chan Secretary Leonard Winogora Treasurer
Cherie Kipple Communications Officer
Arnie Schoenberg Organizing Officer
Arnold Korotkin Member at Large: 4-year Colleges
Linda Sneed Member at Large: 2-year Colleges
Nancy Merrill-Walsh Member at Large: Eastern Half