Adjunct faculty would be hard hit by health care plan

The nation’s Affordable Care Act , aka Obamacare, aims to expand the number of people with health insurance. Yet in some cases it appears to be having the opposite effect.

Last Saturday, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus passed its budget (SB 5034), which includes a version of Sen. Andy Hill’s SB 5905, which would have a huge impact on part-time state workers. The Republican-dominated caucus wants to save an estimated $60 million by abolishing a decades-old law that provides state-paid health insurance for state employees who work 50 percent or more. The bill would end state-paid health insurance for part-time state workers and force them to purchase health insurance in the new state exchanges.

Though these health care exchanges have yet to be established, insurance is certain to have less coverage because it will not include dental and vision. And it is likely to cost more than the current state coverage. Some part-timers might not qualify for the exchanges, and therefore lose their coverage entirely. Many others could pay hundreds of dollars more a month than they do now.

Much has been made of our high unemployment rate since the recession. But many people are also underemployed, working fewer hours at jobs that pay much less than they would like. Part-time workers are not simply earning extra incomes any more; they are trying to make a living, and having a tough time doing so.

Especially hard hit will be the state’s 8,000 part-time (or adjunct) faculty who work in our 34 community and technical colleges. These adjuncts outnumber the full-timers by two to one and teach half of all courses statewide.

They are already earning only 60 cents on the dollar for teaching the same number of courses as a full-timer, thereby saving the colleges $132 million per biennium. And union contracts bar them from teaching a full-time load in order to prevent them from earning tenure.

Adjunct professors hold advanced degrees, often from our own research universities, yet are forced into low-wage salaries that average $18,000 per year for half-time teaching. The 2013 federal poverty level is $19,530 for a family of three.

Why are these adjuncts, with master’s and doctoral degrees, paid so little? The colleges and the unions, which are dominated by tenured faculty, have bought into the fiction that teaching can be done in a piecemeal fashion and that adjuncts “just teach.” Consequently, while the colleges pay the full-timers for each and every hour they work, they only pay the part-timers for the hours they are in class.

So while a full-timer who teaches three five-credit classes is paid to work 40 hours a week, a part-timer teaching this full-time load is only credited (and paid for) 15 hours a week. An early version of SB 5905 that would pay part-timers and extra $2 an hour to help with the cost of their health care would be of little aid to part-time faculty.

SB 5905 will take away this hard-won benefit and make it harder for the colleges to attract and retain well-qualified adjunct professors. Already earning poverty-level wages, the lack of benefits may drive them away. I have already heard several adjuncts say they will leave.

The Majority Coalition Caucus wants to lower tuition by 3 percent, and add money to higher education. Yet it seeks to balance its budget by abolishing health insurance for the adjunct faculty.

Nearly 60 years ago (May 17, 1954), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously outlawed America’s system of racial apartheid in our K-12 schools in Brown v. Board of Education: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

It’s now time for the state board, the state Legislature, and the governor to make the changes necessary to end this separate-but-unequal, two-tier system in our two-year colleges, and treat adjunct faculty as equals.

They can start by leaving adjunct professors in the state health care system.

Keith Hoeller is the co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association. He has taught philosophy in our community colleges for nearly 25 years. In 2012 he became the first adjunct to ever win the Distinguished Faculty Award at Green River Community College.