Labor & Work-Life Issues

Adjunct Group Begins a Push for Unemployment Benefits

David Ahntholz for The Chronicle

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, says a key goal of the new campaign is to help adjuncts receive unemployment compensation between academic terms.
May 24, 2010

The New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy group, plans to formally announce on Monday a campaign to push more out-of-work adjuncts to file for unemployment insurance between academic terms and during summer breaks. The organization's goal, ultimately, is to change a federal law that some colleges routinely invoke to keep adjuncts from receiving unemployment benefits during those interims.

Maria Maisto, president of the advocacy group and an adjunct who works in Ohio, says the organization's decision to undertake the National Unemployment Compensation Initiative stemmed from a recession that has worsened the already-tenuous job security of adjuncts and has thrust unemployment benefits into "the public eye right now. But many adjunct and contingent faculty don't realize that they're eligible to file."

And those who do file are regularly denied compensation, based on each state's understanding of a simple clause in the federal unemployment-insurance law that says benefits should not go to those with a "reasonable assurance" of continued employment. Colleges sometimes point to the assignment letters adjuncts receive describing their institution's intention to rehire them for the following term as evidence that they have such an assurance. Adjunct advocates argue that, because adjuncts' contracts are contingent on enrollment and available funds, their future employment is left uncertain.

Some states do provide such benefits during interims. Adjuncts in California have routinely received unemployment payments at those times because of a 1989 ruling by the California Court of Appeals that clearly states that part-time faculty members are eligible for the compensation. And more recently, in Washington State, adjuncts have persuaded legislators to fine-tune state law to work more in their favor, too.

That progress is encouraging, says Matt Williams, New Faculty Majority's vice president, but a sustained, nationwide campaign is what it will take to pave the way for real change, including revision of the federal law.

"By addressing the unemployment issue, we also simultaneously address some of the other issues—like creating a more stable work environment for contingent faculty," Mr. Williams says. "We're really seeing this as at least a 15- or 16-month campaign."