Colorado Lawmakers Take Up Sweeping Overhaul of Adjunct Working Conditions

February 04, 2014

A key committee of the Colorado legislature on Monday approved a groundbreaking bill that would assure community colleges’ adjunct instructors seniority rights, some level of job security, and the same pay and benefits as full-timers per hour worked.

The State House of Representatives’ Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs voted, 7 to 4, along strict party lines, to pass the measure, called the Community College Pay and Benefits Act of 2014. The vote followed a three-and-a-half-hour hearing in which adjunct instructors and Democratic lawmakers praised the measure as necessary to remove pay inequities and preserve educational quality, and college administrators and Republican lawmakers opposed it as too costly, burdensome to colleges, and likely to lead to big tuition increases.

Even some Democratic lawmakers who voted for the measure voiced doubts about the state’s ability to pay the costs associated with the proposed improvements in adjunct instructors’ working conditions. They argued, however, that the proper place to discuss such financial concerns was the bill’s next stop in the legislature, the House Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. Su Ryden, a Democrat who is chairwoman of the committee that voted on Monday, echoed others on the panel in calling the poor working conditions of adjunct instructors "an issue we just can’t ignore."

Pay Proposals

Among its provisions, the bill would require community colleges to establish for all faculty members a single salary schedule, with incremental step increases. Part-timers’ pay and benefits would be pegged to the hourly compensation of full-timers, so that an adjunct instructor who worked half of a full-time workload would earn half of what a full-timer made and receive half of the full-timer’s benefit package.

Whereas part-time faculty members currently serve at the will of their employer, the bill would require any community college that is terminating an adjunct faculty member’s contract to provide a written explanation of that dismissal and provide the faculty member with access to a fair appeals process.

"This bill is about strengthening the community-college system and making it a national model for other states," argued the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Randy Fischer.

Maria C. Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts, called the bill "a huge, huge move" and said her group was willing to support it "in whatever way we can."

Uncertain Prospects

The measure’s long-term prospects for passage are far from certain. The price estimates placed on it during Monday’s hearing ranged from $86-million to well over $110-million, and Republican lawmakers and community-college administrators disputed assertions by Representative Fischer that the colleges would be able to free up such funds by rethinking their spending priorities.

One Republican committee member, Rep. Dan Nordberg, said he feared the measure’s costs would take tax-dollar funds away from the state’s four-year colleges. Another Republican, Rep. Timothy Dore, called the bill’s estimated price tag "just too big for me" and predicted its passage would lead to tuition increases that would render college unaffordable for more students.

In response to several adjunct instructors’ testimony that they had difficulty surviving on what they are paid, Mr. Dore said, "They know what they are getting into," and, "No one, at the end of the day, puts a gun to their head and says take the job."

Don Eron, who testified in support of the measure as a member of the executive committee of the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors, predicted that the bill would encounter substantial resistance from community-college lobbyists, adding, "I am not expecting them to surrender."

Colleges’ Concerns

The intensity of that opposition was on display in testimony presented by community-college officials.

Andy Dorsey, president of Front Range Community College, called the bill too complex and comprehensive, and argued that it would actually hurt adjunct instructors by forcing community colleges to reduce course offerings to cover its costs.

Cindy Hesse, director of human resources at the Community College of Aurora, said the due-process rights the bill proposes would require hiring additional administrators, and its pay guarantees would result in adjunct instructors’ being paid as much as full-time faculty members with much broader responsibilities.

Ms. Maisto of New Faculty Majority said the hearing on the bill, alone, represented a substantial victory for adjunct instructors, who were able to publicly discuss their working conditions.

"At the end of the day," she said, "whatever happens with it, it is going to call attention to the horrendous conditions of contingent faculty at community colleges, and that can only be a good thing."