Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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An ‘Alarming Snapshot’ of Adjunct Labor

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When Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, launched an online forum asking adjuncts to submit stories of their working conditions, contingent faculty greeted the effort with cautious applause. Finally, a national public figure was speaking up about higher education’s deepening labor gap. But would the talk lead to any substantive action?

Weeks after the forum’s submission deadline, that has yet to be determined. But today Democrats in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on which Miller serves, weighed in with a 36-page report detailing its findings.

The report draws on 845 stories submitted by adjuncts in 41 states over the course of six weeks. For the most part, it echoes news articles and other recent research on adjunct labor: “Contingent faculty often earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to maintain difficult schedules to make ends meet, face unclear paths for career development, and enjoy little to no job security.”

But it also suggests a possible solution: passage of the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act of 2013, a bill introduced last February that would, among other things, extend Affordable Care Act coverage mandates and family and medical leave protections to part-timers. (The bill was referred to a House subcommittee in April and has languished since.)

This is just one idea, though, and there’s no indication that the bill will soon make headway. Miller said in a statement that he plans to work with fellow committee members, universities and colleges, and contingent faculty to posit more solutions to the “troubling issues.”

The report’s findings will help guide those discussions, said Julia Krahe, communications director for the education and workforce committee.

‘Just-In-Time Professor’

Miller said that the report—"The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education"—is “in no way an exhaustive account of the circumstances of adjunct faculty,” but it raises “some serious concerns.” It pairs data gathered from the forum entries with anonymous quotes from the respondents.

The respondents, despite varied education and work backgrounds, submitted stories that were largely consistent, Krahe said. While some said their employment situation was better than others, citing union contracts or access to benefits, most shared the same difficulties.

Highlights from the findings include:

Contingent faculty often have low pay and few, if any, benefits. Of the 845 forum respondents, 166 supplied information on how much they are paid per course. Most respondents indicated they made between $2,000 and $3,500 per three-credit hour course. Of the 152 respondents who listed their estimated annual teaching salary, the average was $24,926.

More than 60 respondents reported salaries that would put them beneath the federal poverty line for a three-person family. Some respondents said they were on federal assistance programs like Medicaid or food stamps. One added: “During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for [my child’s] daycare costs.”

On top of low pay, 75 percent of the respondents who discussed the topic said they did not receive benefits—either because their employer didn’t offer them or because they were otherwise ineligible. One adjunct wrote: “The health care plan that I could buy into costs more than my take-home pay on even a good year. My retirement plan is to work until they bury me.”

Most respondents teach several courses per semester and travel among several institutions. Nearly half of the adjuncts who specified their course load taught either two or three three-credit-hour courses per semester. But because some respondents took on many additional courses, the average course load is just over three.

Those instructors are also teaching at multiple universities at a time. Of respondents who gave information about the number of schools they served, 48 percent taught at two institutions, 27 percent taught at three, and 13 percent taught at four or more. Most identified themselves as “freeway flyers.” One respondent said: “My commute at the highest point was 900 miles per week; at the lowest it was only 550 miles per week.”

Adjuncts lack job security and predictable schedules. 95 percent of respondents who spoke on the matter said they had no job stability and did not know whether they would be teaching courses from one semester to the next. Furthermore, some adjuncts said they often find out if they have a course just days before the semester begins.

More than 100 respondents said they have never had sufficient time to prepare for their courses. One wrote: “I taught four courses in the fall, but was not told until the day before spring semester started that I wouldn’t have any classes for the spring. I was unemployed with no notice.”

Adjuncts report receiving little professional support. Several problems were cited frequently: a lack of administrative support, difficulty securing copies of required textbooks and students’ email addresses, limited access to professional-development courses, and inability to participate in departmental meetings.

One adjunct recalled: “Although I’ve been at my ... very decent university job for the past 15 years, a tenured professor asked me, ‘So, you’re teaching for us this semester?’ Why am I not part of this ‘us’ after so much dedicated teaching, year after year?”

Image: George Miller

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