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With more colleges and universities cutting adjuncts’ hours ahead of some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act taking effect, faculty advocates and administrators are looking to the federal government for more guidance on how the act is intended to benefit this growing segment of the work force.

Advocates for those off the tenure track say that the moves to limit adjuncts hours are unfair and unnecessary.

"Institutions are basically acting without all the information,” said Craig Smith, director of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers, in reference to colleges and universities that already have set new adjunct course load caps to prevent them from being counted under the health care law as full-timers. Although the act defines employees working 30 or more hours each week as full-time, what that means in academe “[isn’t] fully defined yet.”

In a world where people talk more about credit hours and course loads than hours worked, more clarification is needed – particularly in regard to adjunct faculty who may teach close to a full course load but not currently qualify for benefits at their institution, said Smith. The AFT has been in talks with the Treasury Department, the branch of the federal government responsible for issuing regulations to employers on the act, for a year and expects such guidance to be released by the end of the month.

The American Association of Community Colleges hasn’t taken a formal position on the issue of adjuncts and Affordable Care Act benefits. But David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research, said the association also is awaiting more guidance from the government, in particular the Internal Revenue Service.

“Some colleges may choose to act now, but we also think that it may make sense for the institution to wait until further guidance is provided by the IRS” regarding the law, he said. “The IRS has, at this point in time, not explicitly provided guidance on the treatment of adjunct faculty.”

Still, colleges and universities already have ways to translate course loads into hours worked. One popular metric, according to the AFT, is the Carnegie Unit, whereby one credit hour is assumed to involve two hours in preparation outside of class (three credit hours would equal nine hours worked, for example). Using the Carnegie Unit and similar metrics, some institutions recently have moved to limit adjuncts’ course load caps to fall below the 30-hour mark. (Starting in January 2014, all businesses with 50 or more employees must offer health care options to those working 30 or more hours per week or pay fines of up to $3,000 per employee.)

Those institutions include the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, where at least 200 faculty members were affected by new course caps, and Youngstown State University in Ohio, where 10 immediately were impacted and others will continue to be impacted by their newfound inability to take on more credit hours.

In late November, according to faculty accounts, Kean University in New Jersey also cut adjuncts’ course caps to six credit hours per semester, ahead of the new health care rules. Although a university spokesman said that the institution's agreement with the university’s adjunct faculty union has always included a cap of six course hours, union members said otherwise. Data compiled by the Kean University Adjunct Faculty Federation, which is associated with the AFT, show that in the current semester, for example, 210 adjuncts are teaching more than six credit hours, of 1,124 adjuncts total.

“I have e-mails galore from chairpersons and deans saying, ‘Do something, our hands are tied,'” said Kathleen Henderson, local union president, adding that adjunct faculty across several Kean colleges were notified of the change in single-sentence e-mails, some asking which class sections they wanted to give up next semester.

Henderson said she didn’t know why the university would make such a move, so close to the end of the semester, with all the hiring of additional adjunct faculty the cap will entail. The university spokesman did not comment on the timing of the policy, maintaining that the cap has stood for years (Henderson said university administrators were relying on a singular union precedent from 2003 – and one that hasn’t been followed in years – to substantiate that claim).

At the same time, the issue remains a concern to those who follow adjunct faculty trends in higher education, including Adrianna Kezar, associate director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Kezar also is the founder of the Delphi Project, which is trying to work with faculty and administrator groups to find ways to improve the conditions under which non-tenure-track faculty members work.

“To me it is an issue of long-term versus short-term planning,” Kezar said in an e-mail interview. “Institutions have had budget difficulties for years, but not dug deeper into their institutional expenses to see how they might shift resources to support, say, instruction costs that have been going down over the last 20 years. If we are to move toward more ethical decision-making in institutions, we need to think long-term and develop systemic solutions and not be stuck in short-term, emergency decision-making.”

For Smith, the issue has moral implications.

“One of the biggest issues here is that the narrative is that the Affordable Care Act is the problem, but from our standpoint the [act] isn’t the problem,” he said – but rather institutions finding ways to deny deserving employees potential benefits. “This is just another example of bad employer behavior.”

Institutions that have acknowledged cutting adjunct hours ahead of the new health care law have pointed to shrinking budgets as a reason for preemptively cutting health care costs.

No timeline on forthcoming guidance was available from either the IRS or Treasury Department.

But as higher education officials await such guidance, Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, which represents the interests of adjunct faculty nationwide, cautioned against relying too heavily on any one metric to determine adjuncts’ benefits. Even the Carnegie Unit “needs to be re-examined, and a better understanding of the amount of time and work involved in teaching today’s students must be considered more carefully.”

With technology and other changing factors in higher education, she said, “we believe that the designations of ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’ have become largely arbitrary.”

The New Faculty Majority is engaging the Department of Education and legislators to educate them on the complex nature of contingent faculty, she said.

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