Adjunct Hell

Dealing with a lot of guilt today.

Guilt that I spend so much money on the horses–even now, when they’re not eating hay, I’m still dousing them with $60/gallon flyspray and making sure that the old mare gets a little something to help with her ringbone.

I’m in that peculiar hell that apparently becomes second-nature for adjunct faculty at community colleges. Enrollment wasn’t high enough for them to give me classes this summer. I received an email that they are “anticipating on hiring me” back for fall (and like everything else in education, this notification has a ridiculous name…it’s called a “Letter of Assurance”).

So…that’s nice. But the problem is that this letter isn’t worth diddly. It’s not a contract, and everyone knows it. The letter actually states: THIS  NOTIFICATION IS NOT A CONTRACT.

So the interesting part of all this is that our state allows adjunct faculty to qualify for unemployment, even if you have one of these letters.

The catch is that you have to fight for it.

One of my colleagues, a delightful fiftysomething British woman, had to apply for unemployment last summer for the first time.  Niki had previously made ends meet during the summer when she couldn’t get classes by working at Starbuck’s and as a yoga instructor. She’d worked for the college for five or six years and had fallen into a comfortable routine: classes during the school year, those other two jobs in the summer.

The the Recession hit, and Niki found she couldn’t get a job anywhere….particularly when she had to tell prospective employers she would likely be going back to her other job in September.

So she applied for unemployment.

Our college appealed the state’s decision to give her money. We gave her a letter saying we’d hire her in the fall, they said, so they argued she didn’t qualify for unemployment.  Niki ended up frantically calling a union rep for help (like a lot of part-time staff, she wasn’t a union member, and had no idea where to go for help with something like this). They told her she had to schedule a teleconference with an unemployment judge about the college’s appeal, and to tell the judge that the letter stated it was not a contract for employment.

Then Niki wound up unexpectedly traveling to Britain to get her ailing 86-year-old mother into a nursing home.  She said she had her telephone hearing at 2 a.m. in her mother’s kitchen in Britain.

“I cried,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe I was having to fight with the people I work for.”

She successfully beat the college’s appeal, and was able to stay on unemployment until classes started. Then the college’s HR folks called her in at the start of fall quarter for a meeting. She said they apologized for dragging her through the hearing. “No hard feelings,” they said. “We value your work here very much and we know you’re a great teacher.”

Yeah…no hard feelings.

Sometimes I blame my disgust at situations like this on being an engineer’s daughter. My dad has always hated waste and inefficiency, and this situation is obviously chock full of both.  Shouldn’t unemployment be one of those things that YES you qualify or NO you don’t?  Not: “Yes, you qualify, but only if you know the right things to say after being coached by your union.”

I asked for help myself this spring after I got notice I wouldn’t have employment this summer–my family is still struggling to recover from my five months on the dole last year, for one thing. Our union rep sent me a full-color booklet (more like a small book, really) all about the rights for “contingent faculty.”  It made me sick to my stomach. I showed the book to another colleague–another new hire who also didn’t get classes this summer. “What is this–we have to have a BOOK telling us how to go about this?”  I asked him.

“I’m not going to apply,” he said. He pointed out that as a young single guy, he doesn’t have my cornucopia of monetary responsibilities.  “I can stay at home with my mom and dad and they’ll feed me…and I’m afraid if I apply, it will make them angry.”

I knew I wasn’t going to have a choice. Without relocating to another part of the state, the job at the college was the only thing I could find last year–and this is a job that requires a 150-mile daily commute. With gas prices at $4/gallon this year, I was feeling irritated about a lot more than just my three hours in the car every day.

And I can’t move, because I have two boys who need another year to finish out high school.

I don’t mean to whine, but I’ve read some articles recently about the growing outrage among adjunct staff members, and it sure seems like some of this angst is justified.

I interviewed at another community college in our area last week who said they’d love to hire me. The woman who interviewed me said she wasn’t sure about hiring me on for two classes each quarter, though–because that would involve paying me benefits during spring quarter. “That means another $10,000 cost to the college,” she said, “So I have to clear that through my boss.”

“But I already have health insurance through my husband,” I said.  “Can’t I just turn it down?”

Nope. That’s not how it works, if you work for the state. I tried to turn down dental insurance where I work now for the same reason, and was told I couldn’t turn it down. Not only do I not pay for it (the college does) but I couldn’t refuse it–even though that would obviously save my employer all kinds of money.

Anyway. One of my kids was deeply bummed this morning about having to help one of our relatives with another wave of cherry harvest (which means waking up at 4 a.m., among other fun things). I told him how proud I am of him, and hugged him, but I couldn’t manage to break his gloomy mood before he trudged out the door.

Sometimes I think that’s what I really have a problem with–watching my kids have to bust their butts.  I know it’s good for them to work, but they have to work long hours in some really crummy circumstances because our family desperately needs the money.

I hate knowing that I can’t provide for them the way my folks provided for me. That really smarts, sometimes.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Adjunct Hell

  1. Sometimes it does seem like the rules are skewed. If policies could be a little more flexible I’m sure it would save the employers money and perhaps more jobs could be funded. Even though you feel bad about your son working at something he doesn’t like I think in the future he’ll look back on it as a learning experience and not mind so much when he’s an adult. Good luck.

  2. Hey, GHM, thanks for stopping by. My three boys really like having money–but it doesn’t seem fair to have teens working such long hours. I worked several horrid fast-food jobs growing up, but I didn’t have to work out in the wind and 100+ temps from dawn til dusk.

    I pointed out to the unhappy twin (who was lamenting about how he didn’t make much money) that when the boys all work together, they collectively earn over $25/hour for the family. He hadn’t thought of it that way before.

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