Adjunct faculty describe struggles, seek benefits

  • Teachers union head Merrie Najimy said adjunct professors face “unjust conditions.” SHNS/CHRIS LISINSKI

State House News Service
Published: 5/29/2019 3:58:42 PM

BOSTON — Deanna Putnam has to share four cubicles with 500 other adjunct professors to manage meetings with 14,000 students. Wendy Daley will split her time teaching across two campuses next semester to make ends meet, but will not qualify for health insurance despite a full-time workload. Donna Kalinowsky worries that, without access to a pension or Social Security payments, she will have to delay retirement indefinitely.

All three are adjunct faculty at state and community colleges in Massachusetts, work they described to lawmakers Wednesday as harrowing and stressful because they lack the benefits of their peers who hold full-time positions.

Those concerns could be addressed, the professors told the Joint Committee on Public Service, through a bill that would overhaul the public higher education system and mandate more equitable treatment of non-tenured staff.

“Already, I need food stamps, fuel assistance and Medicaid to survive,” Kalinowsky, who teaches mathematics at Berkshire Community College, said during the committee hearing. “The situation will only get worse for me, my fellow adjuncts and the state of Massachusetts if nothing is done to address this problem now.”

Lawmakers have heard calls for years from education advocates and professors themselves to ensure better protections for adjunct faculty. Last session, a bill that would have made many public school adjuncts eligible for group health and life insurance benefits was advanced favorably by two committees but never received a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The legislation now before the Committee on Public Service (H 2322 / S 1547), filed by Rep. Paul Mark and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, is more extensive. It would make about 9,000 adjunct faculty across Massachusetts eligible to enroll in the state’s pension system if they teach a certain number of courses each year, improve access to health insurance, and allow collective bargaining agreements to go directly to the Legislature for approval upon agreement between the union and employer rather than to the administration first.

Schools would also be required to pay adjuncts the same wages they would pay to comparable full-time faculty for similar work, and they would be instructed to give “full and fair consideration” to adjunct staff when tenure-track positions become available.

“No one, including those who play such an essential role in educating our students, should lack basic job and living security,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy, whose union represents all adjuncts across the state. “In supporting this legislation, you will all have an opportunity to remedy the unjust conditions under which adjunct faculty are working and provide our adjunct faculty with basic rights and benefits that every worker deserves.”

The challenging circumstances adjuncts face have become a common topic in recent years as their role in education has grown. According to Najimy, 70 percent of the courses at state colleges and universities are now taught by adjunct faculty, who are often hired semester-to-semester or year-to-year and paid several thousand dollars per class — adding up to significantly less annually than full-time professors.

In some cases, part-time educators can access health insurance through their employers, but such coverage is not universal. Senior adjuncts at UMass Lowell, for instance, only gained insurance under a contract agreement last fall.

Daley, who teaches psychology at Framingham State University, said she has peers who take on six to 10 courses per year — close to or more than a tenured workload.

“We work the equivalent of full time or more without the benefit of health insurance, job security or other full time benefits,” she said.

Adjuncts warned that the consequences of such conditions extend beyond them and their families. Putnam, a philosophy and religion adjunct at Bunker Hill Community College, said that because adjuncts are not paid for faculty advising and because meeting space is limited, students are often cut off from crucial access to experts in the fields they hope to pursue.

Taking no action to address that, she said, would “put the commonwealth at risk.”

“That is a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.”

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