Adding Insult to Injury: Not Paying Incapacitated Adjuncts

Earlier this year I almost lost a large part of my annual income. It all took place in a handful of seconds. What happened? I fell in the shower.

My descent into bathroom hell came without warning. I was thinking about too many things, not focusing on my entry into my bathtub. In a blink of an eye, I was falling, but instincts interceded and I was able to break my fall with my foot and shoulder. I came away with only a very painful broken toe.

Such events are not that an unusual an occurrence in American homes. However, for adjunct faculty, it can be a financial backbreaker.

Had the fall been worse and I had serious damage to my body, my teaching would have been over for the semester. I would have lost income from the community college where I teach. But this is the typical practice.

At too many of America’s two-year institutions, if you do not teach, you do not get paid. That is not right.

Every semester, as a union official, I receive numerous calls and emails from adjuncts who are incapacitated. They fall in the shower and break a hip. They slip while walking to a classroom and their ankle is broken. Other times, semester-ending surgery is required for a variety of situations. In any event, through no fault of their own, the adjunct cannot teach their classes and the income they would have earned goes up in smoke.

How many white-collar professions punish someone for being unable to do their job due to an accident or health-related issue?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I teach online and also teach at several universities. The loss of income from the community college would have sharply hurt me in the pocketbook. But I had sufficient income from the other institutions. However, many part-time professors only teach for one institution and losing that income is devastating.

When I started helping injured part-time faculty, I assumed there was little that can be done. I was wrong and it does not have to be that way.

First, community colleges could change their policies and follow the example set by four-year institutions, which typically do not punish part-time faculty who become incapacitated. According to Anne McLeer, Director of Research & Strategic Planning for SEIU Local 500, universities make alternative arrangements with the injured part-time faculty member, either having another professor teach the course or bringing in someone from outside the college. Regardless, the instructor is not punished for something beyond their control. They still get paid.

Second, community colleges can simply change their policies and pay injured adjuncts that are physically unable to teach their class. This is already the practice at some community colleges.

Joan Bevelaqua, an adjunct art professor, teaches at Prince George’s Community College and Howard Community College–two of the largest two-year colleges in Maryland. She learned last year that she needed eye surgery, just as the spring semester was starting. Recovery required many weeks of rest and Joan could not teach her classes that semester.

PGCC played Ebenezer Scrooge and paid her nothing. But Howard did not take away Joan’s income from the classes she teaches there. I applaud Howard for doing the right thing. Other two-year schools can do the same.

There are other alternatives, such as creating a fund that would help adjuncts who are unable to teach their classes and lose income. This hardship fund would soften the blow from an injury-related loss of income.

This might be impractical, but perhaps some enterprising company could offer low-cost insurance to part-time faculty that would cover income losses when they cannot teach. It would be similar to travel insurance that pays if your trip is canceled with a very low-cost premium. This is a long-shot but worth investigating.

Most of all, we need to begin talking about this issue. In preparing to write this article, I found it difficult to find statistics on how often part-time faculty experience semester-ending injuries. Gathering anecdotal evidence, I was caught off-guard by the relatively large number of such incidents at community colleges.

For those of us who have a union, we should be encouraging our locals to raise the issue during collective bargaining or when our union representatives meet with college administration representatives.

A related issue is helping ensure that adjuncts that are incapacitated for any reason are not forgotten when it comes time to assign classes for the next semester. Colleges should have policies in place that guarantee part-time faculty are included in future class assignments. An injured adjunct is out of sight and may not receive equal consideration from a department chair or course coordinator. But there is no reason why adjuncts should be further punished by losing future assignments for no other reason than they were injured.

But we do not have to wait until a contract is up for negotiation. I feel confident that much could be accomplished if the awareness level of this continuing issue was higher. College administrators and unions should get together and start discussing policies that help adjuncts who get hurt or need time-consuming medical attention. Let’s eliminate the insult to injury.

By Mitchell Tropin

Faculty Forward Contributor

Treasurer, SEIU Local 500

Vice President, Montgomery College Part-Time Faculty Union