Faced with oncoming changes under the new health care law, Flathead Valley Community College will limit most of its adjunct faculty to teaching 10 credits per semester this spring, a move that was censured by the Montana teachers’ union but which school administrations say is necessary in the new context of health care reform.
Colleges and universities across the U.S. are confronting touchy decisions involving adjunct professors and whether those employees should be deemed “full-time” and become eligible for employers’ health care plans under the Affordable Care Act.
FVCC, which employs roughly 170 adjuncts and 54 full-time professors each semester, is tightening the reins on its part-time staff to ensure they stay within clearly defined parameters for workloads.
A mandate in the health reform law, referred to as the “pay-or-play” provision, requires all employers with at least 50 employees to provide health care coverage to its full-time staff or pay a penalty. Under the ACA, a full-time employee is defined as someone who works at least 30 hours per week on average.
Colleges and universities will be required to offer at least 95 percent of their full-time employees a chance to enroll in an employer health plan.
The tricky situation facing colleges is that professors are not paid hourly and their workload is not easily defined by the number of credits they teach; office hours, study sessions and appointments to boards and committees are also frequently among teachers’ duties.
In Montana, FVCC and other institutions, like the two state universities, that are part of the Montana University System health benefits program are establishing clearly defined work assignments for adjunct professors. A new system that must be ready by Jan. 1, 2015 will be developed for tracking workloads for each institution, to ensure that teachers who are not offered health insurance are not working 30 or more hours and placing the university system in danger of stiff penalties.
An estimated 25 adjuncts at FVCC were scheduled to teach more than 10 credits next semester, according to school administrators. The school will make a few exemptions and allow adjuncts to work over 10 credits in departments that are crowded with students and courses.
Teachers were informed of this change this week.
“We’re working within the constraints of both the federal Affordable Care Act requirements and the university system’s benefits program,” FVCC President Jane Karas said.
“We’re trying to juggle all those things while providing the best education opportunities for our students and maintain the wonderful adjunct faculty we have working with our full time faculty.”
The state’s teachers’ union — the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT) — has been in negotiations with the Montana University System over upcoming changes involving part-time workloads at all of the state’s institutions.
MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said FVCC would be setting a bad example by reducing credits for its adjuncts.
“We think it’s a really bad idea and a bad business plan. We think it’s very unfortunate that an employer would decide that health care doesn’t matter and that we don’t want to pay for it,” Feaver said. “If they do it, that’s going to hurt the quality of their instruction a lot, and they will have a very temporary and transient faculty population.”
Adjunct contracts at FVCC are awarded on a course-by-course basis per semester.
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications and health resources in the Montana University System, said colleges and universities across Montana are undergoing a careful analysis to create a fair and feasible situation.
“We will always get instruction and courses delivered to students, clients and customers who need it,” McRae said. “We’re just going to have to maybe look at some different ways of approaching it.”
He added, “What (FVCC is) doing is not only, in our view, the best practice and advisable, but also something we are doing at every campus.”
Karas said FVCC is considering next semester a transition period that would provide insight into any changes in the future.
“We have some of the best faculty anywhere in the state, and in the nation,” Karas said. “We’re trying to provide a quality education in the most cost effective way possible.”
Correction: The number of full-time faculty employed at FVCC is 54, not 40 as previously stated. Also, adjunct faculty at FVCC are contracted on a course-by-course basis per semester, while other schools award contracts on an annual basis.