As complicated as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is for the man on the street to understand, no one said that comprehending how it would work in everyday life was going to be easy, either.
Just ask anyone who hires part-time or contractual workers. They now have to more carefully watch how many hours these often very talented, and sometimes essential, cogs of their workplace are allowed to work under the new law, which states that it can be up to 30 hours before the employer is obligated to offer that worker health insurance.
But if you think that makes a scheduler’s job complicated, go talk to the head of human resources or any adjunct faculty member at a university or a community college.
Given the nature of teaching, outside of knowing how many hours one spends in the classroom and in the office, it’s very hard to give an exact amount of time to human resources, since that number also depends on the time invested in grading papers, devising courses plans, counseling students, etc.
That’s meant a considerable and often painful cut in hours, without much notice, for some adjunct faculty. And yes, they may be able to replace the income at another school, but taking that route has its complications, too.
And getting any prompt clarification from the federal government — meaning the IRS or the U.S. Department of the Treasury — does not appear to be a sure thing.
‘Can’t Really Wait’
“We need more information, but we can’t really wait for it, either,” said Dave Jordan, the associate vice president of human resources at Howard Community College (HCC), who said that its powers-that-be have determined that, to satisfy the ACA, 22.5 credit hours (faculty goes by credits hours taught, not actual hours) will be considered full-time for its adjunct faculty.
HCC’s former limit was 24 hours; that changed on June 1. But, all told, the limits “are in place and there are some upset people on campus,” said Jordan.
The college has 2,600 employees and about 600 of them have subsidized benefits; of the 2,000 that do not, most do not work enough hours to be affected by the new set of circumstances.
However, HCC hired a consultant and ran the numbers, and found that it would cost at least $1.9 million to insure those employees who are above the full-time limit, and it would cost a $1.5 million penalty if it left hours and credits at the pre-June 1 workload and offered benefits.
Not surprisingly, Jordan said HCC can’t afford that kind of expense.
“So we’re left with this choice,” he said, “but I assure you, if we had the money, we’d be glad to give them health insurance.”
Hit to the Wallet
So what’s an adjunct faculty member to do? If the person need to replace the lost income, s/he looks elsewhere, often to other area community colleges. “We’ll probably see more of that [movement] as this situation progresses,” said Jordan, “even as other colleges are faced with having to take the same actions we have.”
Cristina Packard offered the adjunct’s point of view. She’s one of about 90 in the math department and has been teaching at HCC since 2006. “I love the place; it’s an incredible place to be for the kids, as well as the employees,” she said.
Until last week, when adjuncts could teach up to 24 credit hours and still be considered part-time, Packard usually taught two classes a semester, then another during the winter mini-session.
“I teach 16 credit hours a year, but I know other adjuncts that teach 24, plus they work in the lab and also substitute, because they need the money. They work as much as they can,” she said. “With the new rules, some of them can’t do either. And that’s a big hit [to one’s income].”
And, Packard said, don’t forget another tangent of this issue, which is its impact on the student body.
“The students don’t have as much access to us, either,” Packard said. “That stymies their education. Kids have been able to walk into our math lab at any time for help, because so many of us worked there.”
To make up the difference, she said that the part-timers often opt move to Anne Arundel Community College or the Community College of Baltimore County and pick up their lost hours. But while that looks like a no-brainer, it’s not quite as simple as it seems.
“What happens is that they have to track two schedules, two administrations, two computer teaching software systems and two sets of e-mail — plus the second set of students,” said Packard. “That’s another complication.”
So, in essence, “It’s more work for the same money,” she said, “and the kicker is that most adjunct faculty members have spouses, so we get benefits through them. But look at the problem adhering to the rules of the ACA has caused.”
As for the possibility of looking outside of the profession to pick up extra hours and money, that’s not as simple as it sounds, either.
“Working as adjunct faculty is an excellent way to make a decent wage (which is set to rise by $32 per credit hour on July 1, to a range of $682 to $782) for a part-time professional,” said Packard. “There just aren’t many comparable options available in today’s market.”
But even adjunct teaching at more than one community college doesn’t entirely solve the issue, said Bernie Sadusky, executive director for the Maryland Association of Community Colleges in Annapolis.
“Let’s say that I teach at more than one community college, and I can combine those two incomes to make a good living,” Sadusky said. “Does the law say that I can get health care? The community colleges say no, but the University System of Maryland says yes.
“But then, who pays it? USM does, since they are state employees,” he said, “but then, who becomes the employer of record?”
David Baime, senior vice president, government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C., said that the main problem is that there “has been a lack of definitive guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury regarding how adjunct faculty are treated.
“If a part-time employee works an hour at most businesses, that’s easily quantified,” said Baime, “but, as we know, academia is not measured in terms of hours.”
As for any easy answers, he’s wondering what they might be, too.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Baime, “but the main thing is that the community colleges need definitive guidance from the treasury or the IRS. We are hoping for some clarification sometime this summer.”
Finding the Answer
Jordan seconded that observation from Baime.
“We need more information from the federal government and the IRS pertaining to how we determine what constitutes full-time status for adjunct faculty,” he said, also noting that the new rules have even complicated the status of work-study students, who work up to 20 hours a week, but often have other jobs, too.
“Some of them have coverage anyway, but we need clarification concerning their status, as well,” said Jordan.
And that’s just what Sadusky is hoping for. He said that the MACC will discuss the topic in depth at its President’s Conference, which is scheduled for later this month.
“We thought we would have better guidelines by now,” he said. “We are absolutely dependent on adjunct professors, so we want to be as accommodating as we finally can,” while meeting the requirements of the ACA.
“There may be different ways to approach this problem and solve it,” Sadusky said, “and we are going to get that best thinking and share it with our people.”