April Freely’s part-time teaching job at the University of Akron ended in May.
So she did the previously unthinkable: She filed for unemployment compensation.
She’s among a seemingly growing number of part-time faculty in Ohio who are pursuing state aid after spring semester ends and before the fall one begins.
The quixotic quest pits them against colleges and universities and a bewildering nest of state regulations through which they must wade.
They are spurred by activists who believe adjunct instructors are abused with poverty wages and no guarantees of future employment.
“We want to make contingent faculty more expensive for these institutions,” said Maria Maisto, president of the Akron-area-based New Faculty Majority and a founder of the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association. “We want to make it more cost-effective to give adjuncts job security.”
Adjunct — or contingent — faculty work from term to term, make about $2,700 a course nationwide and do not have employer-provided health care.
They make up about 59 percent of the faculty workforce at UA, the highest rate among Ohio’s tax-supported universities. At Youngstown State, which has the second-highest level of adjuncts, 57 percent are part-timers.
At many colleges and universities, adjuncts teach large introductory classes for lower-level students. Some have little more than bachelor’s degrees, although some have doctorates and are seeking full-time teaching jobs
Their numbers have grown dramatically since the 1970s, said union activist Joe Berry, who wrote a booklet on unemployment for temporary college teachers.
He said the trend toward replacing full-time faculty with cheaper part-time ones was fueled by growing enrollments, the unionizing of full-time faculty and college administrators’ quest to gain more control over their institutions.
The result is a two-tiered wage system that provides full-time faculty with wages, benefits and contracts, and adjuncts with virtually nothing, said Berry, a former adjunct who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
“The movement desperately cries out for a unifying element,” he said. “Unemployment compensation is that element.”
Adjunct faculty’s complaints crested this year when many colleges and universities — among them, UA, Stark State and YSU — limited the number of hours they can teach to avoid providing them with health care under the Affordable Care Act.
That is a double wallop, adjuncts complain: Many are teaching fewer courses, thus making less money, and still don’t have health care.
The NFM and OPTFA have held “filing parties” and a Web seminar to lead part-timers through the world of unemployment compensation and how to skirt a federal law that prevents teachers and full-time college faculty from collecting unemployment when they’re on break or it is summer.
While full-time teachers and faculty have reasonable assurance of collecting a paycheck when classes resume, adjuncts maintain that they do not and shouldn’t be included in the law.
Even though some colleges and universities provide adjuncts with written notice of the courses they may teach in the next term, the classes can be canceled because of low enrollment or for any number of other reasons.
“What we want is a real, legally binding contract with repercussions if the contract is broken,” Maisto said.
She’s trying to persuade the U.S. Department of Labor to issue a clarification that would allow adjuncts to collect unemployment.
In the meantime, it is unclear if adjuncts are filing for unemployment.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services refuses to release claim numbers of individual employers, citing state privacy regulations.
No rise in legal fees
According to UA, it does not seem to be paying more to law firms to represent it against unwarranted claims.
UA spokeswoman Eileen Korey said that in 2010-2011, the university paid $25,597 to Oldham Kramer in Akron and $52,783 to Buckingham, Doolittle and Burroughs in Akron to handle its unemployment claims.
As of March 31 in the current school year, UA paid $38,982 to Buckingham Doolittle, its sole outside counsel for this kind of representation this year, she said. That was about half of last year’s total, with three months to go.
This spring, the university, as always, told some adjuncts by letter that they have “reasonable assurance” that they will be employed for fall.
If they don’t receive a letter, “They can plan for unemployment and file for it,” Korey said in an email. “The university is able to plan, and the employee is also better able to plan and obtain unemployment to which they may be entitled.”
Preparing for worst
But some adjuncts say they are filing even if they expect to teach this fall.
One instructor filed against all three universities for whom he worked last year, even though he expects to teach at two of them this fall.
He asked that his name not be used because he’s afraid of retaliation.
In about a month, he got four letters from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees unemployment claims, that: UA appealed his claim; that his claim against Ohio University was allowed; that his claim against UA was denied; and that he wasn’t entitled to anything and must return the $2,000 he got to date.
To add insult to injury, he couldn’t find work this summer, so he has no income.
“I love my job, but I don’t think they’re fair to people,” he complained.
Adjunct David Wilder of Cleveland expected to teach an art class at Cuyahoga Community College this summer. But it was canceled when only 11 students registered, one fewer than the minimum of 12 needed.
Disappointed that his only teaching assignment of the summer was pulled, he reopened a claim for unemployment that he filed last year against Tri C, John Carroll University and a private banquet company at which he was a server.
He had collected on that claim over the winter break and is collecting again, even though he has reasonable assurance of teaching three classes at Tri-C and one at John Carroll University this fall, he said.
That’s not the end of the story. He learned this week that John Carroll is appealing his award, fueling his fear that he will have to pay back the money he has received.
“It’s a very Byzantine system,” he said. “I’m very confused.”
As for Freely, she has been told she’ll teach two classes at UA this fall, but still filed.
UA disputed her claim; she appealed.
And Freely, a co-chairwoman of the OPTFA organizing committee, hasn’t been standing still. She found a job as a server at a national restaurant chain. She isn’t working full time, but still qualifies for health care through her employer at $95 a month for a single person with a yearly deductible of $100.
She was astounded to learn she could get health care on her first day on the job, and reasonably priced as well.
“I think this puts our institutions of higher learning to shame,” she said. “This is not bad at all, even on a waitress’s budget.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.