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In many ways, the White House’s surprise announcement that it would delay the employer mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act by one year, until January 2015, is good news for colleges and universities struggling to figure out just who will be covered under the law. It gives institutions more time to decide how they’ll count adjunct instructors, whose credit hour-based schedules don’t fit neatly into the law’s existing metrics for qualifying for coverage.

And while the announcement could lead to good news for adjuncts who have had their hours limited by colleges worried about the new provision taking effect, there was little celebration Wednesday. Colleges said that they were studying the situation, but no one was pledging to lift limits or restore hours to anyone.

But in other ways, it adds a new layer of confusion onto what is already a complicated situation, particularly for those colleges that already have announced plans to limit adjuncts’ course loads to avoid having to provide them with health insurance as full-time employees. Questions remain as to whether institutions will temporarily backtrack on their plans, and if that’s even possible, given the timing of the announcement, so far into summer when planning for fall courses is already under way.

“I think that the government has poorly served institutions by announcing this delay so abruptly and so relatively close to the date of implementation,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research of the American Association of Community Colleges – one of many organizations that’s asked the federal government to issue long-promised specific guidelines as to what constitutes a full-time employee in higher education under the law. (In January, the Internal Revenue Service asked higher education officials to use "reasonable" means of calculating faculty hours worked.)

At the same time, Baime added, “We hope that colleges will take this additional time given to them to evaluate their approach to policies in this area and, even more importantly, ask the government exactly what’s expected of them as institutions.”

In November, Community College of Allegheny County announced it was capping adjuncts’ work load at 10 credit hours per semester, instead of the standing 12 (it subsequently changed the cap to 11 credit hours) and temporary part-time employees were limited to 25 hours per week of work. Under the Affordable Care Act, large businesses such as colleges and universities must provide employees who log 30 hours or more a week with health insurance or face hefty fines. Colleges largely have used their own metrics to determine how many courses equal 30 hours of work, in the absence of specific guidance form the Treasury Department. But cutting hours inevitably will lead to fewer employees qualifying as full-time and therefore reduce the new insurance burden on their institutions, the logic goes.

Youngstown State University in Ohio followed suit with similar plans, as did dozens of other colleges throughout the academic year, including the entire Virginia Community College System. At least one institution, the College of DuPage in Illinois, did extend health care to a select group of adjunct lecturers. But it also lowered its maximum course load for its other part-time faculty.

On Wednesday, officials from most of those institutions said it was too soon to know how the delay would impact their plans, some of which are already in place. Through a spokesman, Chancellor Glenn DuBois of Virginia’s community colleges said he would convene a high-level discussion on the matter on Monday. Campuses in that system have already held hiring fairs for adjuncts to deal with the caps, which are set to take effect in the fall, so if the college system lifts the caps it has imposed, it may end up disappointing some who came to those job fairs.

For adjunct faculty, the stakes of such discussions are high. Not only do course caps dash hopes of qualifying for health insurance among the many who don’t already have it through their employers, but the caps may also reduce their pay or force them to find work at multiple campuses.

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said the timing of the announcement only added to what is already a stressful time for most adjuncts, as they face less available work during summer and uncertain fall schedules. But, she said in an e-mail interview, “the delay is a good thing in that it may prevent more institutions from imposing these arbitrary and top-down policies, which have mostly been developed and implemented without faculty input and without regard to the effect on students and on educational quality.”

She continued: “We will be watching to see what schools do in response to this development. As always, our biggest concern is whether their decision-making will be motivated primarily by concern for educational quality or exclusively concern for bottom lines.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the Association Federation of Teachers, a union that includes adjunct higher education faculty, expressed similar sentiments in a statement.

“The extra time granted to employers should be the occasion for extra commitment from all stakeholders to fulfilling the promise of the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “As that process continues to move forward, employers must refrain from actions such as cutting workers’ hours to make them ineligible for employer-provided coverage."

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