LAS VEGAS -- Attendees at the annual meeting of higher education's main association of human resources administrators discussed a typically broad panoply of issues, from the pace of retirements to diversifying the academic work force to managing change. But one issue occupied their attention, formally and informally, above all else: the current and pending impact of Affordable Care Act.
Only a handful of the several dozen sessions at the annual meeting of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources here focused specifically or exclusively on the new federal health care law, but those that did were in large rooms that had standing-room-only attendance.
More to the point, the topic dominated many hallway discussions among attendees of the "What's keeping you up at night?" variety, and became a key topic -- if not the dominant one -- at sessions that weren't nominally about health care.
That was most evident in the annual update for CUPA-HR members on what those wacky politicians in Washington are doing. Because "every single piece of legislation is a knock-down, drag-out fight" these days, as the association's chief government relations officer, Josh Ulman, put it, the deeply divided Congress isn't likely to agree on meaningful legislation in the near term in many of the other realms that are important to college and university HR officers, such as immigration, the minimum wage, and the shape and focus of the National Labor Relations Board.
Ulman made clear that there are plenty of regulatory areas campus employment administrators care about in which the Obama administration might act, including rulings by the NLRB on the unionization of graduate students and professors at private colleges, and a possible executive order to require government contractors to assure nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But far and away the most significant federal initiative dominating the minds and efforts of HR officers is the Affordable Care Act. And that's despite the fact, Ulman said, that the current contretemps over the significant flaws in the healthcare.gov website doesn't concern them.
Many other things do, though. The most pressing concern for many campuses is the question of how to treat part-time employees when it comes to the requirement to provide health insurance to any employee who works at least 30 hours a week, an issue on which CUPA-HR and other higher education associations have lobbied the government intensely. The federal government has delayed the deadline for the so-called employer mandate by a year, to January 2015, but many institutions are deciding how to treat adjunct instructors and various categories of student workers.
Inside Higher Ed's recent survey of chief human resources officers showed that about half of campuses had limited the hours of adjuncts to keep them under the 30-hour limit, and that another third of the remainder were considering doing so. When Ulman asked audience members how they were counting adjunct hours, one campus official said her institution had decided to count one hour of preparation and other outside-the-classroom time for each hour of classroom credit they taught, while others said they were using the two-hours-per-classroom-hour measure that union officials have advocated. So far the Internal Revenue Service has urged campus leaders to use a "reasonable" measure, but that's as much guidance as the government has offered.
Ulman said the higher ed groups had asked for a 1-to-1 ratio, but that "many people seem more comfortable with 2 to 1, because the unions have thrown it out there." Whatever a campus chooses, he said, what's ultimately important is that an institution be able to defend its rationale.
"The IRS is not going to be able to audit these, so a lot of this will be driven by complaints," Ulman said. "You need to have the justification in your back pocket" in case of a challenge.
Ulman laid out some of the other issues that remain in question and about which campus officials remain perplexed, such as whether the unit of analysis in determining an adjunct's employer is an individual institution or, in the case of an adjunct who works at multiple institutions in a public higher education system, the entire system. That is particularly relevant because an adjunct who stitches together multiple jobs at multiple community colleges within an hour's drive could argue that he or she has a full-time position (for insurance purposes) at three system institutions -- which would probably benefit instructors.
"We have asserted that [the appropriate unit] is the individual college, and we're sticking by it," said Ulman.
Other Impacts on Institutions
Another session at the CUPA-HR meeting focused on retiree health, another issue about which participants in Inside Higher Ed's human resources survey expressed significant concern, given the growing financial liabilities many of them face.
Officials from several campuses, including the University of Vermont and Utah State University, said that they had made changes to their retiree health plans.
And Paul Fronstin, director of the health research and education program at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, said he suspected that some colleges would soon follow the dozens of corporations that had dropped their health care plans in favor of joining private health care exchanges -- not the public exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, but large markets run by companies or insurers that, theoretically at least, let employees choose from among offerings while helping employers control costs.
"We're waiting to see who's going to be the first one out the door," Fronstin said.
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