Federal guidelines may help adjuncts receive unemployment benefits between terms

State government officials say they aren’t concerned about additional costs as a result.

by Rilyn Eischens

After nearly six years of pressure from a faculty advocacy group, updated unemployment insurance guidelines from the federal government may make it easier for adjunct faculty to collect benefits between academic terms.

Activists say this change — the first of its kind since 1986 — will ease financial strain on part-time instructors who are often employed on a semester-to-semester basis.

And state government officials say they aren’t concerned about additional costs as a result.

The guidelines, published in December 2016, specifically mention higher education and states in which “the use of part-time instructors … has increased significantly” since the last set of guidelines came out. The new recommendations also note that adjuncts’ contracts and employment offers are often contingent on funding, enrollment, program changes and other factors.

Jason Stahl — lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development — was a graduate student at the University from 2001 to 2008. He worked as a teaching assistant, graduate instructor and research assistant to support himself financially.

But after completing his degree, Stahl struggled to find a full-time teaching position. He was unemployed from August 2009 to August 2010.

Many people told him that he wouldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance that he ended up not applying, he said.

“If I wasn’t married and had a wife who had a stable income, I have no idea what I would’ve done,” he said. “It would’ve been terrible.”

Stahl said this situation isn’t unique.

“I definitely have had many conversations with people who are on very tenuous employment at the U, people who are on semester contracts, and then summer comes around and they lose all pay and benefits,” he said.

About six years ago, the New Faculty Majority — an organization that advocates on behalf of contingent faculty — formed a national coalition of faculty unions. This coalition pushed for the federal government to update its unemployment insurance guidelines to include part-time instructors, said NFM president and executive director of the NFM Foundation, Maria Maisto.

Many schools were obstructing instructors’ applications to prevent their unemployment taxes from increasing, and some state agencies weren’t following federal guidelines consistently, despite a 1989 California court ruling that part-time faculty qualified for benefits, she said.

For example, Maisto said she worked at two different schools in Ohio and applied for unemployment at both. One school contested her application, and the other didn’t, even though her employment circumstances were exactly the same at each institution, she said.

“Adjuncts oftentimes really, really desperately need the funds in the summer because they don’t get paid,” she said. “We want them to understand that this is their right … as citizens, and we also are trying to keep the colleges and universities honest.”

Minnesota state government officials aren’t concerned about the extra costs with the update.

Monte Hanson, media relations director for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the financial and administrative impacts will be minimal because Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program is already so large.

The program serves more than 180,000 people each year and paid out more than $853 million in benefits last year, so it’s unlikely that the change will create problems in terms of payments, he said.