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Don’t let colleges use the ACA to abuse contingent faculty

As the Affordable Care Act reaches implementation, questions remain regarding how contingent faculty will be treated when the act fully takes effect in 2014. The AFT has been in discussions with the U.S. Treasury Department on many aspects of the ACA and its definition of “full time” for the purpose of the employer penalty, but the department wants to hear from individuals, too.

Some colleges have jumped the gun on this unresolved issue, cutting back on the number of hours they are assigning to part-time faculty.

The Treasury Department has requested comments by March 18 this year. It is important that adjuncts, their unions, and faculty and staff colleagues communicate their experiences and concerns.

Here is information about the ACA and how you can contact the IRS. 

Defining “full time”

Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act levies penalties against large employers (those with at least 50 employees) that do not offer affordable health coverage to their full-time employees. The law defines a full-time employee as one who works at least 30 hours per week on average. On Jan. 2, Treasury issued proposed rules regarding the determination of full-time status for the purpose of the employer penalty for failing to provide full-time employees with health coverage. Even though these are “proposed” rules, employers can rely on them unless final rules are issued. Note that the Affordable Care Act does not supersede collectively bargained language, including contract language on benefits eligibility or teaching load. 

The AFT is weighing in

We know that some institutions are capping teaching loads for part-time and adjunct faculty in response to the the individual institution’s interpretation of ACA regulations. Many of these caps assume a definition of “full time” for contingent faculty that does not exist in federal law or policy. Federal regulators have not determined an equivalency between credit hours taught and hours worked per week.

The rules proposed on Jan. 2 mention the situation of adjunct faculty, but do not resolve the question of how their full-time status should be determined. The proposed rules do, however, require employers to use a “reasonable method” for crediting hours of service for adjuncts. The rules state that “it would not be a reasonable method of crediting hours … to take into account only classroom or other instruction time and not other hours that are necessary to perform the employee’s duties, such as class preparation time” (Federal Register, p. 225). You can read the full text of the proposed rules as published in the Federal Register at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-01-02/pdf/2012-31269.pdf

The AFT plans to comment again, urging Treasury to stay true to the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, which envisioned widespread access to affordable health coverage. Our comments will argue that: 

  1. Federal regulators should not allow the law to be used as cover for bad employer behavior. The law should not be used improperly to reduce faculty workload, and Treasury should clarify that this was not the intent of the law or regulations.
  2. Colleges and universities must not be permitted to reduce contingent faculty course loads and shirk the responsibility of providing health coverage under the guise of complying with the ACA, which was intended to lead to more healthcare coverage, not less.
  3. Contingent faculty members must be treated as professionals. 

We would like to see guidance from federal regulators that incorporates these principles either in the rules or in other guidance directed at institutions of higher education. 

Now it’s your turn: How to submit comments 

Our case will be stronger if Treasury Department receives significant comments. To that end, we encourage individuals and local unions to submit comments on this issue. You are welcome to incorporate ideas from the paragraph above or our previous comments, or craft your own letter. Because of the diversity of situations on different campuses, it would be helpful for Treasury to receive comments from many different locals and affiliates. 

Comments on the proposed rule are due by March 18, 2013.

Comments may be submitted:

  1. By mail. Address comments to:
    CC:PA:LPD:PR (REG–138006–12)
    Internal Revenue Service, Room 5203,
    POB 7604, Ben Franklin Station
    Washington, DC 20044
  2. Electronically. Go to http://www.regulations.gov and follow the instructions for submitting comments. Be sure to reference IRS REG–138006–12. 

If you do submit comments, it would be helpful if you could also send a copy to Amy Clary in the AFTs research and strategic initiatives department: aclary@aft.org

Other ways to take action

  • Encourage your members to submit comments on the definition of “full time” for the purpose of the employer penalty for not offering health coverage.

  • Track your state’s exchange—
  • If you have the time and resources, survey your members. The following questions will help collect the data necessary to begin to see how members may be affected by healthcare exchanges, premium subsidies and employer penalties. You might ask members:
    • How many courses do they normally teach each semester?
    • How many of them need health coverage but do not have it?
    • How many have health coverage through the employer?
    • How many of them have health coverage from another employer, a spouse or partner, Medicare, or another source?
    • How many have had their course loads cut or threatened by employers under the guise of ACA compliance?

It might be helpful to include in your comments to Treasury some of the information you collect about your membership. In “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” a 2012 publication of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), 78 percent of the part-time faculty respondents reported that they taught two or fewer courses per term. How does that compare with the contingent faculty members at your institution?

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Amy Clary (aclary@aft.org) or Jack Nightingale (jnightin@aft.org). [Barbara McKenna]

March 1, 2013