The Uninsured Adjunct

Suit in Massachusetts draws attention to lack of health coverage for many of those off the tenure track -- even those who work full time.
November 30, 2009

While the national debate on health care continues, some adjuncts are trying to draw attention to their status among the well-educated professionals who get little or no insurance from their employers -- and who many times go without any coverage.

Adjuncts at Massachusetts community colleges sued the state last week, charging that they were entitled to coverage through state plans, and that they are unfairly classified as consultants rather than employees. Whether adjuncts in public higher education have coverage depends largely on how states define employees and employee status. As the Massachusetts ruling illustrates, adjuncts who teach multiple courses -- semester after semester, at the same institutions -- can still be denied coverage by their colleges.

Activists for adjuncts hope that the Massachusetts case will spur others, as part of a campaign to use the courts and the court of public opinion to win more health coverage. Adjuncts in Washington State who sued did win coverage, and in some cases adjunct unions have won coverage through collective bargaining. But, particularly in states or colleges without faculty unions or favorable state laws to rely on, many are hoping for reforms at the national level or for institutional change set off by compelling examples of non-tenure-track professors who have been unable to get health coverage.

John Cipora, one of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case, teaches three or four courses a semester in psychology or sociology at Holyoke Community College. He's 62 and earns about $35,000 a year (with a doctorate). He doesn't have health insurance and was able to persuade the state to waive its legal requirement that he obtain health insurance because he was able to show he couldn't afford it.

Cynthia Duda is another plaintiff in the case. She teaches five or six courses a semester, and a few in the summer, at North Shore Community College and Bunker Hill Community College. She pays for her own health insurance, and recently downgraded her coverage from a plan that cost her $909 a month (for coverage similar to what she would receive at minimal cost working in a permanent position) to a more minimal policy, for which she pays $638 a month. She said that she's 61 and doesn't feel she could go without coverage, but that she regrets having to make do with a lesser plan.

She has no coverage for weekend assistance unless she is in such bad shape that it would justify admission to a hospital emergency room. "If I get sick on the weekend, I'm stuck."

In many cases where adjuncts do receive some health insurance coverage, they must teach certain numbers of courses and do so for some specified number of semesters. The theory behind such requirements is that the college or state shouldn't have to pay for insurance for, say, a lawyer who teaches one course at a law school every other year. But the Massachusetts plaintiffs are all individuals whose work hours far exceed the state's normal requirement for part timers to receive health benefits (18.75 hours a week) and all have worked year after year at their colleges.

The reason cited by state officials is the crux of the suit: Massachusetts considers all of these adjuncts to be "consultants," not employees, even though some have taught every semester for five or more years. That's because they are technically hired only one semester at a time. (The lawsuit references this rationale, and while state officials would not discuss it publicly, they did confirm the accuracy of the suit's explanation of the state justification of denying the benefits.)

The Massachusetts Community College Council, the faculty union for adjuncts, which joined the suit, estimates that there are hundreds of adjunct faculty members who exceed the 18.75 hours a week requirement and who would be receiving health insurance if acknowledged as employees.

"We have hundreds of adjuncts teaching term after term after term. How can they not be employees?" asked Joe LeBlanc, a full timer at Northern Essex Community College and president of the council, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The state relies on adjuncts to teach about two-thirds of courses in the community colleges, while pretending that they aren't employing any of them, he said. "Adjuncts are a used and abused cash cow for the state," he said.

LeBlanc said that his union has tried to raise the issue in contract negotiations, but has been rebuffed by college presidents, who cite the state's Department of Higher Education and other state agencies as insisting that adjuncts are temporary consultants.

One reason the suit charges that this is a bogus explanation is that the state has given adjuncts seniority rights; after successive semesters receiving good reviews, adjuncts can be given preference for courses in the next semester. LeBlanc said it makes no sense for the state to grant seniority rights to adjuncts if they are not employees.

Richard M. Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts, issued a statement in response to questions about the suit. He said: "I recognize the importance of adjunct faculty to the public higher education system and the great service they provide in helping to educate our students, especially at this time of expanding enrollments across our public campuses. I also recognize their need, shared by all residents of the Commonwealth, for affordable health insurance, but I am not in a position to comment further on the legal merits of the suit."

Maria Maisto, president of the board of New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct group, said that she didn't know of national data on the percentage of adjuncts who work without health insurance provided by employers or without any insurance at all. But she said that the lack of health insurance as a benefit is among "the top concerns" of adjuncts she talks to.

In Washington State, adjuncts went to court in 2004 and won an agreement expanding their rights to health insurance. There, the requirement used by the state is that one must work roughly half time to earn the right to benefits. But adjuncts were losing benefits when they didn't work in the summer or when they hit any one quarter where they didn't get a schedule equal to half time. The settlement to the lawsuit said that adjuncts could use averaging over a year, so that a single quarter below half time would not cause them to lose health insurance. And they also won the right not to lose insurance when they met requirements during the traditional academic year, but didn't in the summer.

Keith Hoeller, co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and one of those who sued over benefits in his state, said that "class action lawsuits are a powerful weapon in the adjunct's arsenal." He said that he supported the idea of trying to use collective bargaining to win benefits, but that it was important to have alternatives.

"If we are unable to obtain justice at the bargaining table, and our state legislators will not heed our call, then we must ask the courts to intervene," Hoeller said.

Facing Cancer Without Health Insurance

The case of Doug Wright represents for many adjuncts a worst-case scenario. Wright taught in a variety of humanities disciplines as an adjunct, full time and part time, at several colleges in Salt Lake City, including Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah and now at Westminster College. At Westminster, he was at one point receiving health insurance, as he was teaching full time although off the tenure track.

Then the college authorized the creation of a tenure-track position, and while Wright applied, he was passed over. (Like plenty of adjuncts who teach year after year, Wright doesn't have a doctorate, so he said he wasn't surprised by the decision to hire someone who has one.)

When the position was filled, Westminster still had some courses for Wright to teach, but he fell to part time from full time -- and lost his health insurance because the college does not provide it to those who work part time. In May he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he has had to navigate treatment without insurance. Friends have made a video about him, featuring interviews with his students and faculty colleagues, about how inspirational they find his teaching and how frustrated they are that he must face such a serious health crisis without insurance.

In an interview last week, Wright said he is now "struggling" with the cancer and that he fears he may soon be unable to make it to a classroom to teach. He said he may look for distance courses so he can teach from home. Asked for thoughts on the adjunct push for health insurance, he said that "adjuncts should have health insurance because everyone should have health insurance."

The vulnerability to losing health insurance with a change in work status -- illustrated most dramatically in Wright's case -- gnaws at the Massachusetts plaintiffs as well. One adjunct there said that he had a worry about one possible state response to an adjunct victory in the suit. The state could, he said, just cut all the adjuncts hours to below 18.75 hours a week, and then they would have reduced pay (and money), and still not have insurance.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top