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.
Adjuncts make up about half of the teachers at the four-year schools within the University System of Maryland, which said in a statement that "as a matter of principle, the USM is not asking institutions to seek to limit hours of adjunct faculty to avoid their being classified as full time under the Affordable Care Act."
Up to 600 University System of Maryland adjuncts are expected to be eligible for benefits under the act, at an annual cost of about $10,000 apiece for those who sign up. If everyone joined in, it would cost around $6 million per year.
It's unclear how many Maryland community college adjuncts would have become eligible for benefits if their hours weren't limited.
"Health care is expensive. It's just plain expensive," said Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
All of the state's 16 community colleges were grappling with the issue, Sadusky said, though their solutions are far from uniform. Part of the problem is that there is no consistent method for measuring the hours that an adjunct instructor works. They're typically paid according to class credits, which fold in preparation and grading time, instead of actual time worked.
A spokeswoman for Harford Community College said the school has long had a strict policy of limiting adjuncts to levels that are well under the threshold for Obamacare, so none of its adjuncts would have qualified for benefits anyway.
Other schools — including the Community College of Baltimore County, where Poff works — said they have had long-standing policies restricting adjunct hours, but that the rules were often bent. The Affordable Care Act led them to re-evaluate their practices.
"Our goal is not to hurt people, it is in fact to obey the law within some pretty tight financial constraints," said CCBC President Sandra L. Kurtinitis. Adjuncts "are an important resource within our college community. There's no intent on our part to try to misuse them."
The school has limited adjuncts to roughly three of its three-credit classes, Kurtinitis said. The school has also taken the initiative to convert some part-time positions to full-time, based on need. Kurtinitis expects to have about 15 new full-time faculty positions in place before the Affordable Care Act is implemented.
Other schools will simply hire more adjuncts to spread out the course load, Sadusky said, adding that community colleges are performing "an intense examination of what their options are and trying to be as humanistic" as possible.
Some schools in other states have set similar limits.
In Virginia, adjuncts who are state employees will be required to work 29 hours or less per week — to avoid the 30-hour threshold — under a February directive from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell that applies to all of the state's part-time workers. Individual institutions in Ohio and Pennsylvania are also limiting adjunct hours.
Anne Arundel Community College, which has 880 adjunct teachers — 77 percent of its teaching staff — actually raised the number of hours it allows adjuncts to work after realizing that the earlier limit was too low.
Community colleges in Carroll, Howard and Prince George's counties are drawing lines based on class credit hours.
"With the help of an outside consultant to analyze workloads of all of our part-time employees, including the adjunct credit faculty, it was estimated that it would cost the college approximately $2 million in health benefit costs if no workload changes were instituted," Howard Community College said in a statement. "Being unable to afford the cost of this unfunded mandate, HCC began on June 1, 2013, limiting the adjunct credit faculty to 22 credits per year."
Carroll County said that it also would proactively manage adjunct schedules because the school "(like many publicly-funded employers) is not in the position to significantly expand the numbers of individuals who are offered health care insurance," President Faye Pappalardo said in a statement.
The colleges said they will exempt some adjunct professors in specialized, high-demand fields — such as cybersecurity and physical sciences — from the limits because those instructors are hard to find.
Montgomery College declined to discuss its policy, instead issuing a statement saying, "We will comply with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and we will keep our College community informed."
Adjunct faculty at Montgomery recently unionized.
Joan Bevelaqua, who lives in Howard County and teaches painting at Howard Community College, believes other faculties will soon follow suit because of the cuts under the Affordable Care Act.
"We're 80 percent of faculty. We can come together and talk to each other about how this is affecting us," she said. "It could be a movement."
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