In addition to receiving poverty-level wages throughout their lifetimes, adjuncts can expect to be poor during their retirement years as well. The amount of one’s monthly social security payment is based on earnings during one’s lifetime. Full-time tenure-stream faculty are likely to earn the maximum social security check, while adjuncts are likely to receive significantly smaller checks due to their much lower lifetime earnings. Most adjuncts may never be enrolled in any retirement system whatsoever.
Most colleges and universities enroll their professors in accounts with TIAA-CREF and then match contributions, depending on the age of the professor. A 100 percent match by the college is not uncommon, with professors over fifty having 10 percent of their salaries taken out of their paychecks, and the colleges contributing another 10 percent.
It is common for tenured faculty to retire with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their TIAA-CREF investment accounts. Some long-term professors may even have $1 million or more to rely on in their old age.
Additionally, many tenured faculty may retire and then teach part-time at their college. Just as when they were teaching, full-time faculty can count on a steady and sufficient revenue stream during their retirement years. And some may be awarded the prestigious status of emeritus professor, which may include an office and clerical support.
Professors also have the option of opening up supplemental retirement accounts with TIAA-CREF and making additional regular contributions. As with all of TIAA-CREF, the professor can then allocate his or her assets between various categories of stock funds, bonds, money market accounts, and guaranteed interest-bearing accounts.
In contrast, contingent faculty may not be able to retire at all, let alone early. While some colleges do provide health insurance for their adjuncts, even fewer provide retirement accounts.
In 1998, I was the initiator of a class-action lawsuit concerning the denial of retirement benefits to part-time faculty in Washington State’s community college system.40 Like the other class-action lawsuit I mentioned earlier, the case was called Mader v. State of Washington; it alleged that part-time faculty were wrongly being denied benefits because the community colleges ignored a state threshold of 50 percent or more and refused to count all of the hours they worked outside of class.
Although the state denied any wrongdoing, the case was settled out of court for $12.5 million in 2002.41 Thousands of contingent professors received checks for thousands of dollars. More importantly, many adjuncts were now eligible for retirement.
Tenured faculty possess the gold standard of job security: lifetime tenure, which can be removed only for just cause and with elaborate due process protections. Tenure-track faculty can usually expect to have their annual contracts renewed until they receive a tenure decision.
While some adjuncts have multiquarter, annual, or even multiyear contracts, the norm remains the quarterly or semester contract, which provides only limited security during its term, and none beyond the end of the contract. The fact remains that contingent faculty who are hired term by term may not be rehired for any reason or even for no reason at all. They are neither fired, nor laid off, nor even “let go.” They are considered temporary employees and the college feels that it is under no obligation to bring them back. Not being rehired is usually not a basis for a grievance.
Seasonal workers have come to depend on our nation’s unemployment compensation system to tide them over when they are not working. Construction workers, for example, can obtain unemployment when they are out of a job. Although colleges and universities save large amounts of money by underpaying contingent faculty and using them only when they have “sufficient” enrollments, they have not hesitated to vigorously oppose unemployment applications by adjunct faculty. In some cases, colleges have even hired outside consultants in order to avoid paying unemployment to their contingent faculty. And the colleges are often successful.
In my Chronicle of Higher Education article “Neither Reasonable, Nor Assuring,” I pointed out that the states have been misinterpreting an eligibility requirement that was originally intended to prevent full-time K-12 and college faculty from double-dipping and collecting unemployment when they are in fact still employed by the colleges.42 In 1977, the federal government drafted artful language saying that if a “school employee” had “reasonable assurance” of returning to work after a term or summer break, they were ineligible to collect unemployment.
This policy makes perfect sense when applied to full-time teachers, who may indeed be on regularly scheduled breaks, for which they are paid and are still receiving benefits from the college. But as I wrote, “part-time faculty members do not have annual contracts, or annual salaries, and the vast majority do not receive any benefits during the summers. When part-timers are not teaching, they are unemployed—the major criteria for collecting unemployment.”43
The routine denial of unemployment to tens of thousands of contingent faculty has become so widespread that Joe Berry, Beverly Stewart, and Helena Worthen have published “a manual for applicants and a strategy to gain full rights to benefits” called Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty.44 The authors write that “those who drafted the unemployment legislation never contemplated current conditions in higher education, nor did they contemplate that working conditions for the majority of higher education instructors would resemble the conditions faced by factory and service workers more than they would resemble the working conditions of independent professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, to whom college educators were most often compared.”45
In Washington State, many of our community college part-time contracts contain the following language: “It is understood that this employment is on a temporary basis and for the limited time period set forth in the contract. The appointment is not subject to tenure. Neither this appointment nor any policy, rule, or regulation shall be construed as providing the employee with an expectancy of re-employment by the [community college] district.”46
Yet even though the state allocates money for the colleges to pay unemployment each year, administrators still challenge adjunct unemployment applications because, if they are successful, they can divert the money to areas they deem more important.
Fortunately, the law seems to favor adjunct claimants. In the 1988 decision Cervisi v. Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, the California Supreme Court ruled that “an assignment that is contingent on enrollment, funding, or program changes is not a ‘reasonable assurance’ of employment.”47 Unfortunately, equal protection of the law is routinely being denied to contingent faculty outside the state of California.
Not only do adjuncts receive low pay and few benefits, their income is highly variable, depending on whether they are offered future classes, and whether the classes that have been offered to them are allowed to be taught. Colleges can, and do, cancel classes for a variety of reasons, including insufficient enrollment, as well as funding and changes in their programs. Administrators often laud their ability to quickly change directions under the broad category of “flexibility.”
It is usually the college that determines the exact number of students that make up a sufficient number for a class to be held. This number, which is rarely challenged by faculty or their unions, can vary from division to division, department to department, and even from class to class. The college can sometimes cancel classes as late as ten days into the term.
When an adjunct has a class canceled, she will lose the income for that course. In some circumstances, the college may pay her for an hour or two of preparation, but rarely more.
While full-time faculty can have their classes cancelled as well, they do not lose any income. Since a tenure-stream faculty member has a contract with the college to teach a certain number of classes, he has to replace the cancelled class with another. Usually this means the full-timer will take a class from a part-timer, who will be left without compensation for the course. When this happened to me, not only was I left without pay for preparing my course, I was asked to turn the curriculum I had developed over to a full-time professor who then taught my course. Part-time faculty never have the right to bump full-timers, and I have not heard of a contract that gives part-timers with seniority the right to bump less senior adjuncts.