As the federal health reform known as Obamacare takes hold, many community colleges in Maryland and across the country are capping the hours of adjunct faculty — who make up the bulk of their teaching force — to avoid paying for the instructors' health insurance.
The limits put the adjunct teachers on the leading edge of fallout from the Affordable Care Act, whose critics predict that a range of employers will increasingly rely on part-timers to sidestep insurance requirements that go into effect in 2015.
Cash-strapped community colleges in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Prince George's counties, among other places, have pre-emptively limited adjuncts' hours, starting this year. Expanding health coverage to such instructors would cost schools across the state $17 million, officials at the Maryland Association of Community Colleges estimated.
Though many schools already had hourly limits in place, their enforcement was frequently lax. The current efforts will keep all but a handful of instructors from qualifying for health benefits under the law.
Adjuncts' hours are also being limited at schools in some other states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Obamacare has been the target of controversy since its passage, and Republican efforts to repeal the law were at the heart of a congressional stalemate that led to the recent 16-day shutdown of the federal government. The controversy over the law continues, with the focus turning last week to technical problems that consumers across the nation have encountered in trying to sign up online for insurance.
Critics such as Rep. Andy Harris say the adjunct teacher situation offers one more reason that the Affordable Care Act was a mistake. Harris, a physician and Maryland's only Republican in Congress, notes that some restaurants and retailers have announced similar plans to limit the hours of part-time workers as a result of the law.
"They're reading the writing on the wall," Harris said. He's co-sponsoring one bill that would redefine full time employment as 40 hours per week and another that would repeal the Affordable Care Act altogether. "Insurance is just getting too expensive" to provide, he said.
But Obamacare supporters counter that employers are just using the act as an excuse to cut costs.
"This is a new variation on a theme," said Kathleen Stoll, deputy executive director of Families USA, a Washington-based nonprofit that has advocated for the Affordable Care Act.
"We've seen over the last 20 years many employers moving to contract employees or otherwise creatively — even in the federal government — avoiding any obligation or sense of obligation for health and other employee benefits," Stoll said. "So the trend of employers trying to be creative on how not to offer insurance to slices of their workforce is not new. I think there is some lack of sincerity about blaming this on the ACA."
The mandate community colleges are facing — already delayed by the Obama administration in the face of warnings from businesses that they weren't ready for it — requires employers with 50 or more employees who work an average of at least 30 hours per week to offer health benefits or pay a stiff fine by 2015.
As community colleges outline plans to limit their part-time adjunct faculty, teachers who were counting on extra hours to make ends meet say the cuts are devastating. Most make less than $2,500 per course, which means less than $23,000 a year under the new limits, which generally restrict adjuncts to three classes or fewer per semester.
"I understand that colleges don't have money to throw around and there's a larger issue here, but it is frustrating to feel like, that in the face of this legislation designed to help people, that instead it's hurting people," said art history instructor Amy Poff, who lives in Howard County. "That's not the legislation's fault, but it is the college's fault."
Adjuncts weren't all expecting to secure health benefits from the schools under Obamacare — but they didn't expect to suffer what amounts to a pay cut, either.
Poff said she would love a full-time faculty position, but spots are scarce and she can't afford the doctoral degree employers prefer. So her solution has been to take on as many classes as she can as an adjunct, making a career out of it.
At the Community College of Baltimore County, she said, she has taught as many as four three-credit classes in a single semester. But this year the school asked adjuncts to sign a contract that limits them to no more than three such classes. So Poff, who also teaches at Harford Community College, added a third school to the mix: Howard Community College.
She now spends hours on the road driving to her classes, some of which are spread nearly 60 miles apart. "I live in my car," Poff said.
Adjuncts are paid less than full-time faculty, receive few, if any, benefits, and typically don't merit an office. Not all of them are trying to make a career out of the classroom work, as Poff is. Many have full-time positions in other fields and teach on the side.
Educators estimate that adjuncts now make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the faculty on community college campuses nationwide. Their numbers ballooned during the recession, when the colleges needed to quickly and inexpensively add teachers as enrollment grew, buoyed by those looking for new skills or alternatives to pricier four-year schools.