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Between paychecks, Kalamazoo community college part-timers' union starts food drive

Working Without Pay
January 18, 2013

College food drives are usually organized by student groups aiming to serve needy off-campus populations. The one this week at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan is different. It’s benefiting part-time faculty members who can’t make ends meet until their late paychecks arrive at the beginning of next month.

“This really came as surprise to a lot of people,” and the recent holidays and current tax season haven’t left many part-time faculty with a financial cushion, said Kelly O’Leary, part-time French and English instructor and co-president of the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Federation of Teachers, the part-time faculty union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan. About 300 part-time instructors, many of whom were expecting to be paid on Tuesday as usual, won’t be paid until Feb. 1 due to administrative issues.

“We have a number of single moms trying to support kids,” O’Leary said. “I don’t think people understand that they’re below poverty wages.”

To help bridge the gap, the union launched the food drive on Jan. 11. Since then, it has been flooded with food donations and gift cards to Meijer supermarket, where faculty can buy more food, gas and prescriptions. “We’ve had part-time faculty coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘I’m a diabetic and I need to buy insulin,’ ” said the union's co-president, Catherine Barnard, a part-time psychology instructor. “At first, we didn’t even think about medication, but many of these people don’t have benefits.”

Because some part-time faculty have expressed shame at publicly accepting help, Barnard said she’s arranged via e-mail to meet part-time faculty in the parking lot or elsewhere on campus with donations. Most of the help has come from full-time faculty and part-time faculty with heavier course loads, and the drive is being promoted on the union's Facebook page, where O'Leary has posted a virtual "I am working without pay" button.

Kalamazoo Valley pays part-time faculty about $2,400 per course on a term-to-term basis, compared to about $10,000 per course for some full-time, permanent professors paid an annual salary (not taking into account other full-time faculty duties), Barnard said. (By way of comparison, a 2010 survey of non-tenure-track faculty members by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce showed the median compensation rate for adjuncts to be $2,700 per three-credit course.) Barnard estimated that most part-time faculty teach two or three courses on campus each semester, which, without picking up additional courses at other area institutions, would amount to an annual income of less than $15,000.

A union member notified leaders of the payday delay on Jan. 7, at the start of the semester. O’Leary said she attempted to meet with the administration to change the payday, to no avail (the union co-president said administrators blamed part-time faculty who were slow to turn in their semester paperwork and low staffing during the holiday period for the delay).

College officials reject the idea that the pay schedule should have taken part-time faculty by surprise. Michael Collins, vice president for student and college relations, said in an e-mail that the pay calendar was first posted on the college intranet in August 2012, and that full-time and part-time pay faculty pay schedules have differed from each other going as far back as 30 years (Kalamazoo Valley’s 129 full-time faculty were paid on Tuesday).

O’Leary disagreed with that statement, saying the part-time faculty pay date was included in the faculty calendar in an obscure place that did not show up on most people’s computer screens, and went missing from the calendar for prolonged periods during the fall semester. Additionally, she said, most faculty who expect their pay at a certain time each month don’t check the calendar to verify that it will be arriving. (In her nearly two decades of working at the college, she said pay had only been delayed once before, at the start of the fall 2011 semester. The union was formed shortly after.) She also pointed to state wage and earnings laws that guard against late payments after a routine pay schedule has been established by an employer, although such laws pertain to a biweekly or weekly pay schedule; the college typically pays faculty on the 1st and 15th of each month.

Although it’s not a permanent fix for part-time faculty, Nancy Beers, a part-time history instructor, said the drive has been welcome news to families such as hers, with Michigan’s tough job market (her husband was laid off last year and she’s picked up fewer courses this semester – four, compared to eight at three different campuses in the fall – than she would have liked).

“The only way we’ve made it [this month] is that we saved everything we could from last semester,” she said.

 

 

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