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Many adjuncts not only work for low pay, but do so without employer-provided health insurance. So the American Federations of Teachers’ announcement on Friday that it was partnering with the Freelancers Union to offer adjuncts – even those who aren’t part of AFT – access to benefits came as good news to many. The AFT is not paying for benefits, but rather is offering adjuncts access to various plans that might be difficult or more expensive to obtain individually.

Earlier this year, the Freelancers Union announced the launch of a National Benefits Platform, through which independent workers can search by ZIP code a “suite” of various benefits. Offerings include health and dental insurance and retirement and term life insurance. The new AFT partnership will offer adjuncts a special web portal to access these and other programs and services offered by both unions, starting this fall.

The Freelancers’ membership already includes about 3,000 educators, most of whom are adjuncts. The union offers legal representation and other services to its members -- about 250,000 nationwide. About 10 percent currently purchase their insurance directly from the union, in New York State only. This fall, Freelancers will start offering members ways to purchase insurance in 49 other states through various third-party providers.

“The real benefit of something like this [is] that the more that the urgent material needs of adjunct faculty can be taken care of, the more time, energy, and resources they will have to devote to improving the profession,” Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said via email.

Maisto hadn’t known that the AFT plan was in the works, but said that the New Faculty Majority once considered approaching the Freelancers Union with a similar proposal. She especially applauded the fact that benefits packages will be available to all adjuncts – not just AFT members.

AFT’s joint announcement came last week at its annual convention in Los Angeles. In a news release, Randi Weingarten, president, said that the Freelancers Union partnership would provide the nation’s adjuncts – the vast majority of whom are part-time and lack employer-provided benefits – access to “much-needed” resources. Some non-tenure-track faculty members who are members of AFT-affiliated unions currently receive health insurance through their institutions, but those adjuncts tend to have half-time appointments or more.

Despite much positive buzz surrounding the announcement, some adjuncts have raised concerns about the Freelancers’ track record as an insurance provider and say they want to know more details about its agreement with AFT.

Keith Hoeller, a Washington-based adjunct activist and author of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, said he wanted to see a copy of the contract between AFT and the Freelancers, since offering insurance to union members can be a lucrative business. He also pointed to a 2012 report from New York State's Department of Financial Services that ranked the Freelancers Union the "worst" of 38 health care insurance providers.

“It would be great if the AFT would release the contract it has with the Freelancers Union, which seems more of an insurance company than an actual union,” he said via email. “When I went to their website, it said the health care benefits would be ‘coming soon.’ Very limited dental coverage (maximum $1,200 a year, with copays) was $53/month for individuals and $99/month for two people. There was little retirement information; it appears that it may be only a savings account.”

A search for benefits in Washington, for example, turned up results similar to Hoeller’s. Health care options were “coming soon,” and one dental insurance plan offered coverage starting at about $50 per month.

It's unclear how forthcoming benefits plans will compare to options available in the public exchanges that are being established as part of the Affordable Care Act. A Freelancers spokesman said the union was still ironing out which plans will be offered in which states, but that that process would be complete in time for fall open enrollment.

Both AFT and the Freelancers say they're not making any money off the partnership -- which they say is more of an agreement than any kind of formal contract. Instead, they say, combining forces will be an effective way to address the needs of significant segments of the higher education and freelance work forces. 

Freelancers says the New York State report reflects the first years of its insurance enterprise (which began in 2009), and that it's improved steadily since then.

The AFT plan bears some resemblance to existing and possible future resources and benefits offered to adjuncts by the Service Employees International Union. That organization has seen much momentum in the last two years regarding its Adjunct Advocacy campaign to organize adjuncts on individual campuses and across metro areas. SEIU has said it hopes someday to offer benefits to its part-time faculty members, perhaps through a third-party provider. SEIU also has launched an online community for adjuncts, through which adjuncts across the country – even non-members – can communicate.

AFT is trying out a metro organizing strategy for adjuncts similar to SEIU’s in Philadelphia, where SEIU also is organizing.

A spokesman for SEIU said via email: "Adjunct faculty often lack access to benefits, so this program is a positive step for contingent faculty who build a broad movement to form unions and raise standards in higher education."

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