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The Affordable Care Act was designed to get more people access to health insurance. But one community college has decided to prevent some adjuncts from being covered by the law by cutting their hours.

Effective Dec. 31, Community College of Allegheny County will cut course loads and hours for some 200 adjunct faculty members and 200 additional employees to avoid paying $6 million in Affordable Care Act-related fees in January 2014.

College President Alex Johnson announced the plan in an e-mail to faculty and staff members last week. “As you probably know, the Affordable Care Act has redefined full-time employees as those working 30 hours or more per week,” Johnson wrote. “As a result, the college must adjust hours of some temporary part-time employees and adjuncts to comply with the new legislation’s conception of part-time employment.”

The college is capping adjuncts’ work load at 10 credits per semester, formerly 12. Temporary part-time employees will be limited to 25 hours per week (permanent part-time employees, already eligible for coverage under the college’s health care plan, remain unaffected).

For adjunct faculty, the blow is twofold. It quashes hopes of employer-assisted health insurance while cutting income for those who previously taught a larger course load.

Adjunct English professor Clint Benjamin, who has been teaching at the college for six years, pays out-of-pocket for catastrophic health care coverage only and had vague hopes of improved insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Not only is he now ineligible for such help, but the course load reduction will translate to up to $600 less in pay each month.

But Benjamin still will be working full-time. Between the college and nearby Duquesne University, he currently teaches seven courses per semester. He estimated he works up to 70 hours per week, but doesn't qualify for health insurance at either institution.

“There’s frustration and anger and sadness and resentment, you know, but you don’t have a voice,” Benjamin said of adjunct faculty’s reaction to the news. “But it’s going to be a silent type of thing, because we’re the most vulnerable part of campus life. It’s not like we can dial up our [American Federation of Teachers] rep and say, ‘Hey, we’re getting the short end of the stick here.’ ”

Although other college faculty are unionized at Allegheny County, adjunct faculty members are not.

Benjamin said he also worried about the decision’s impact on the college’s mission. If enrollment holds steady or increases, he said, the college will have to hire more adjuncts with smaller course loads but perhaps less of an investment in campus life than those who teach more courses.

Major elements of the Affordable Care Act, including the employer mandate, take effect in a little more than a year. The timing of CCAC’s announcement didn’t surprise Matt Williams, vice president of the New Faculty Majority – a national coalition for adjunct faculty – as employers across industries had been holding out on making major policy changes until after the presidential election (Republican candidate Mitt Romney had campaigned on repealing the act).

Still, Williams said, it comes as a disappointment.

“This so-called Affordable Care Act could have pushed colleges and universities in a couple different directions, but we’d hope they’d be good, responsible actors,” he said. “We’d hoped they’d recognize the need to provide health benefits and a living wage – or at least not a poverty wage – to highly skilled, highly educated workers.”

Johnson was not available for comment Monday. But college spokesman David Hoovler said in an email that the change is necessary, if not ideal.

“Our preference certainly would be to extend health coverage to all of these individuals,” he said. “However, we are simply unable to afford the significant cost at this time.”

College records show funding from Allegheny County was $25.7 million in fiscal year 2012, compared to a proposed $23.2 million in 2013.  The college’s operating budget is $109.5 million this year, of which salaries and benefits make up about 80 percent, Hoovler said. The college employs some 1,200 adjunct instructors, who have taught an average of 56 percent of all credit hours during the past several years. Those adjuncts who work full-time or otherwise qualify for health insurance are not affected by the change.

While the Community College of Allegheny County may be the first institution to preemptively avoid Affordable Care Act-associated costs, discussion as to what colleges and universities now owe their adjunct faculty isn’t unique to its campus.

Earlier this month, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources announced it was seeking clarification from the Internal Revenue Service on postsecondary institutions’ obligations to their adjunct faculty in light of the new law (which applies to all employers with 50 or more employees). The move was prompted by inquiries from several institutions seeking additional clarification and interpretation of the requirements.

Association President and Chief Executive Andy Brantley said in an e-mail: “As colleges and universities have struggled due to drastically reduced funding from state and other sources, many higher education institutions have had to add adjunct faculty and/or increase the course load of adjunct faculty. This has caused some adjunct appointments to meet or exceed the equivalent of 30 hours per week [on an ongoing basis]. For purposes of the Affordable Care Act, a 30-hour employee will need to be given the opportunity to receive health insurance coverage. We know that course load can vary based on academic departments and disciplines and hope to receive additional guidance from the IRS regarding adjunct appointments and the 30-hour rule.”

Currently, institutional policies on health care coverage vary, according to information from the association.

Williams said the college’s move is the first of its kind he’s heard of, but he didn’t rule out other institutions doing the same. While he wasn’t sure what, if any, legal recourse adjuncts had against such moves, he said he hoped their situation would at least cast light on a long-simmering issue.

“What’s more likely to happen is that this will help to raise awareness of the fact that you’ve got these folks who are educating predominantly our young people,” he said, “but who are so marginalized many of them qualify for food stamps and other forms of public assistance while being denied other examples of a safety net.”

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