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Fighting for Time to Heal

Non-tenure-track faculty members and allies urge UC Irvine to grant long-serving lecturer paid medical leave following brain surgery.

October 4, 2019
 
UC Irvine
Andrew Tonkovich and Lisa Alvarez in 2017

Adjuncts and their advocates often cite the University of California system’s non-tenure-track faculty union contracts as the gold standard: pay is relatively good, there’s a clear path to continuing appointments and benefits are available to those teaching half-time or more.

But one Irvine campus instructor's recent health crisis demonstrates just how vulnerable even the best protected non-tenure-track professors are.

“I did not want to be the poster boy for this particular challenge, but it kind of happened that way,” said Andrew Tonkovich, who has taught composition to thousands of students during his 22 years as a lecturer in English at Irvine. “And under ideal circumstances, it is possible -- barely -- for someone like me to make something like a career out of continuing appointments here. But I’ve stumbled into this situation where what you would call the vulnerable elements of our working conditions are suddenly revealed, and it shows just how precarious it all is.”

Last academic year, Tonkovich’s arm began to hurt. As the pain progressed into paralysis of the limb, doctors believed that it was a nerve problem. He received surgery for that diagnosis, taking only a few days off and arranging substitutes for his courses through a work trade with colleagues.

But the paralysis did not improve even after surgery, and his condition worsened. Tonkovich’s wife, Lisa Alvarez, a professor of English at Irvine Valley College -- whom Tonkovich met when they were graduate students at Irvine -- said this week that he looked like someone who’d suffered a stroke on one side of his body.

Doctors came up with a new diagnosis: a benign tumor deep in Tonkovich’s brain. Impossible to remove, the tumor would have to be treated with a permanent stent. And following the hopefully successful brain surgery, Tonkovich would need serious therapy to recover the use of his arm and hand.

The surgery was scheduled for mid-September but eventually delayed a week due to medical complications. In the meantime, Tonkovich applied for medical leave for one quarter. Tonkovich’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union contract only guaranteed long-term, full-time lecturers paid medical leave, and Tonkovich was on a 75 percent appointment, teaching six courses per year. He'd previously taught a full load but requested the reduced appointment because teaching eight writing courses felt like a 125 percent load, he said, and because he had other obligations in the literary field, including editing the literary magazine Santa Monica Review

Tonkovich was also very involved in his union. As its past president, he knew that other system campuses had made exceptions in the past for lecturers like him. And he thought his 22 years of service would help his case.

His request for a quarter’s paid medical leave was denied, however, based on the 100 percent appointment contract stipulation. Instead of paid leave, Irvine said, Tonkovich would have to take unpaid family medical leave as guaranteed under federal law. Perhaps worse, the university told him that he’d have to pay back some of the money he'd earned over the summer, according to his 12-month pay schedule, if he wasn’t going to be teaching this term.

Irvine also notified Tonkovich that he’d have to pay back contributions to his health care for that period -- even though he has always been on Alvarez’s insurance plan, since he considers her benefits superior to those available to him. It’s a small point, he said, but that fact alone has saved Irvine thousands if not more over the years he’s been on campus.

The lecturers' union says it consulted with administrators from the university system president’s office during a preplanned collective bargaining meeting and was told to resubmit the request, as Irvine had latitude to interpret the contract more sympathetically to Tonkovich (this could not immediately be confirmed and the president's office referred questions about the case back to Irvine).

Tonkovich resubmitted his request, this time asking for two quarters of paid leave to recover. Again, he was denied.

Following the second rejection, the union opted to take Tonkovich’s case public. It created a petition online that has been signed by more than 5,700 people.

In response, Irvine posted a note to the petition saying that it would extend its "catastrophic leave policy to allow Andrew to receive direct donations of vacation time from other employees." Many on "our leadership team with accrued vacation hours have offered to donate their time to provide full compensation to Andrew during his current leave.”

The university referred questions about the case back to its response to the petition. That response acknowledges “Andrew’s important contributions to our university” and notes that his leave approval “was based on clear policies, governed by the union contract, that are applied fairly throughout the university.”

The union say it hasn’t accepted the vacation-hour donations, mostly because they don’t solve anything for anyone else who may end up in Tonkovich’s position going forward.

Tonkovich, who spoke via telephone during a postoperative appointment at the university system’s Los Angeles campus Thursday, agreed. He wants this kind of benefit assured for all his colleagues, not just him, he said, whether they face brain surgery or "get hit by a bus."

Alvarez, Tonkovich’s wife, said, “We know we are fortunate because I have the job I have. But I have been wondering how this would feel to someone who didn’t have that. It must be so awful to have to hesitate to get health care because you think you’re going to lose your income.”

The majority of part-time faculty members nationwide have no access to health care benefits at all through their institutions, let alone paid leave. Those at private institutions are even less likely to have employer-provided insurance than their peers at public colleges and universities.

Adjunct faculty benefits -- or the lack thereof -- made national headlines in 2013 when the Pittsburg Post-Gazette published a column on the late Mary Margaret Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne University for decades but died broke and alone after being fired while undergoing treatment for cancer.

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