Report Examines Precarious Nature of Academic Labor

A SEIU report called Crisis at the Boiling Point tells an important story of what’s happening in academic labor by documenting and analyzing just how much work part-time faculty are doing, when they are doing it for free and how federal employment laws often fail to protect the contingent workforce. This report also offers recommendations and actions that faculty, students and concerned members of the community can take to begin to reclaim our higher education system.

Faculty from 238 colleges and universities completed the national survey. Respondents include faculty teaching at every type of degree-granting institution: non-profit, state universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges and universities, both faculty teaching on physical campuses and at on-line institutions. Faculty responded to the national survey from 32 states with the highest percentages coming from Massachusetts (20 percent), New York (14 percent), and California (14 percent). In addition, to date, over 40 in-depth interviews have been completed with faculty to gather detailed data on working conditions.

Institutions of higher education can and do take advantage of contingent faculty’s precarious status under current employment laws and dedication to their profession to get long hours of teaching work for little—and at times delayed—payment in return.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law setting minimum wage, overtime, and timely pay standards for both hourly and salaried workers, currently does not cover contingent faculty—regardless of how poorly or how often they are paid—simply because they are teachers. In addition, eligibility for important federal programs under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program depends in part on the number of hours worked, limiting or complicating adjuncts’ access to those benefits. The long hours contingent faculty work outside of the classroom often outnumber the hours worked in the classroom, but laws and regulations often fail to set accurate standards to account for all hours worked.

Respondents were asked to calculate the number of hours they work, and among those who provided sufficient data, approximately:

  • 16 percent are paid below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour;
  • 24 percent are paid below $10/hour; and
  • 43 percent are paid below $15/hour.
  • 38 percent of respondents are paid below $455 per week, the minimum salary that almost all professional employees must receive to be deemed exempt under the current Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations. If teachers were not carved out of the FLSA salary basis requirement, those respondents could potentially access the legal protections against wage theft under the FLSA.

Many work full-time hours and most put in a significant amount of time outside the classroom, even being asked or assumed to work unpaid.

  • Although by definition an adjunct is “part-time” 40 percent say the work more than 40 hours a week for their university employer(s).
  • Almost all respondents say they are asked or expected to perform work outside the classroom and 28 percent indicated that they spend more than 20 hours a week on work-related tasks outside of the classroom.
  • When asked if they have ever been asked or expected to perform work that they were not paid for by their academic employers, 73 percent of survey respondents stated “yes” or “maybe.” Examples of unpaid work they have performed, include: advising students enrolled in the major or minor; writing recommendations; attending trainings; presenting talks on campus; advising student groups; attending student events; sitting on committees; planning and presenting at orientation or informational meetings for the department; and designing or developing new courses.
  • 18 percent said they have received a late paycheck in the last year.

The public shouldn’t be in the dark about how colleges and universities really work. This report gives faculty, parents and elected officials new insight into what’s happening on campus to ensure they have a voice about the quality of education students receive. Issues like unpaid work, long hours, access to Federal programs and employment law protections are part of a broad need for change on campuses across America.

We recommend the following regulatory changes and adjunct actions to improve conditions for the academic workforce:

  • Broaden Federal and State Labor Protections: We must update our laws to recognize and value the reality of contingent work and hold accountable employers that routinely fail to fairly compensate faculty for hours worked. Contingent faculty—all faculty—should not be exempt from coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act unless their compensation exceeds the salary basis test for salaried workers set forth in the FLSA regulations. If faculty earnings fall below that minimum salary then they, like other professional employees, should have access to the legal protections of the Act. Colleges and universities should be held accountable to pay their faculty the minimum wage and appropriate overtime compensation, and to do so in a timely manner. We urge the Department of Labor and state authorities to ensure that our laws and regulations are reformed to provide faculty with the rights and protections they deserve as vital participants in our economy.
  • Prioritize Instruction: Academic employers need to prioritize instruction and fairly compensate all instructional professionals. Currently, the average pay per course for adjunct faculty is approximately $3,000. This requires adjunct professors to work at multiple institutions and/or hold jobs outside academia. The financial struggle and stress are driving talented faculty out of the profession. We demand and will fight for a living wage for all contingent faculty.
  • Advocate and Take Action for Better Standards: Employers must be held accountable for low standards. For example, if an employer is late distributing paychecks—as experienced by nearly one in five respondents to our survey—adjuncts should request their paycheck in writing. If the employer continues to resist providing paychecks then employees should consider filing a claim with the state labor department or file a suit in small claims court for the amount owed. Adjuncts should also apply and pursue Federal and State benefits. Using the Office Hours tool on, adjuncts can track the number of hours worked work and, if eligible, should apply for governmentally mandated benefits such as Family and Medical Leave and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Faculty should provide employers with the documentation of hours worked and, if rejected, appeal.
  • Unite with Contingent Faculty on Campus and Nationally to Raise Standards.Unionizing has made demonstrated improvements to the working conditions of adjuncts. In October 2014, part-time faculty at Tufts University in Boston overwhelmingly approved a landmark first union contract that makes groundbreaking progress in job stability, includes a significant increase in per course pay, and establishes new pathways for professional development. According to a Boston Globe report, “most part-time professors at Tufts University will get a 22 percent pay raise over the next three years and improved job security under a new contract that could influence negotiations at other schools in the Boston area and beyond where adjunct faculty have recently organized or are considering doing so.” While unionization has the potential to improve compensation and benefits, it also provides an avenue to improve job security, ensure a voice in administration, protect academic freedom and provide a community for an atomized workforce.
  • Advocate for Transparency on University Spending on Instruction: Quickly rising tuition has resulted in record levels of student debt—and students and parents should demand to know from college and university administrators what their money is paying for and if the faculty teaching their classes is being properly supported. Call or write a letter to the provost at your school requesting information and demanding that your faculty be treated fairly.

Faculty are coming together in Adjunct Action, a project of SEIU, to change the face of higher education. SEIU members are fighting to refocus priorities and accountability on our campuses to ensure that our schools are governed by a student-centered philosophy with one mission: to provide access and opportunity for a high quality education for all students.

By raising standards for faculty, SEIU members believe we can restore a higher education system that prioritizes student learning and invests in the instruction that is the foundation for student success.