Unemployment Insurance, A Million College Faculty, and the New Economy in Higher Education

by Joe Berry

Joe Berry

In these times of the Great Recession, unemployment, unemployment rates and the system of unemployment compensation are once again considered newsworthy in the mainstream media. Missing from most coverage however has been any serious critique of either the unemployment statistics themselves or the inadequate system of unemployment benefits.  Both the statistics and the benefits are inheritances from the 1930s New Deal that have been eroded and expanded at various times since then.

One group of workers that hardly existed in 1936 with the creation of unemployment insurance (UI), as part of the Social Security Act, was contingent college teachers . So it is perhaps not surprising that the system that evolved since then has provided for this group so poorly.  For the information of those who have been outside higher education for the last few decades, non-tenure track (precarious, adjunct, part-time, etc.) teachers are now well over 70% of the 1.5 million postsecondary faculty in the USA and they teach over 50% of the courses.  In other words, there are now more contingent faculty than there are steel workers or auto workers in the US today and higher education is among the largest employers in most major metropolitan areas.

This group of teachers, in addition to generally working for much less pay and benefits than their full-time tenure track colleagues, also don’t have paid holidays between terms, either during the winter or over the summer. Rather, they are unemployed with no pay and no assurance of re-employment the following term.

Unfortunately, the UI system as it currently exists creates two great barriers to “temporary”  faculty.  One is the requirement that all educational employees prove that they have no “reasonable assurance” of re-employment for the following term. This was enacted when public employees and private college employees were brought into the UI system in 1970, as a special provision to prevent regular full-time teachers, in K-12 or higher education, from getting UI when they were being paid by their employers, even if they were not actually teaching. An example of thus would be the summer “break” period that K-12 teachers get, or that college and university faculty get if they are on 12-month contracts but do not work in the summer. These employees would expect to continue their jobs in the fall even if they did not work in the summer. The provision must have seemed reasonable then, but it is not now when most college teachers do NOT have reasonable assurance of re-employment, but only, at best, tentative assignments based on projected enrollment, finances and other program needs (such as the need for another class to fill our a tenured instructor’s load).

Besides the inherent difficulty of a requirement to prove a negative, that one does not have reasonable assurance of coming back to a job,  there is another structural barrier.

Under current federal law, every state must have a UI system that conforms to general federal guidelines.  All states currently fund their systems through a payroll tax on employers, much like workers comp or Social Security (FICA). A few states also require a matching deductions from the employees. The problem is that this rate is not a set percentage of pay, like DSS ( FICA) but rather is determined by a formula, devised by the state. In every state a major part of the formula is the “experience factor” or the level of past usage of the benefits of this insurance over some past period. This means that employers pay less if their employees never or seldom get the use the benefit. This gives employers an economic incentive to try to prevent employees from getting benefits, even if they are actually legally eligible. In the case of contingent college faculty, this means that employers routinely tell state UI agencies (who, in the course of processing an unemployment benefits claim, will contact the employer) that these faculty have “reasonable assurance of re-employment” when they manifestly do not. Often they are successful in preventing faculty from getting benefits or forcing them into an appeals process. In either case, even if teachers do eventually win out, they have received the clear message that their employer does not want them to collect UI. In the case of insecure contingent employees who are “hired” back, or not, every semester, this is enough to intimidate many faculty from ever trying to file again and has a chilling effect on all others similarly situated.

The result is that most contingent teachers never get their just benefits, which in some cases drops people into poverty or serious distress.  The major exception is California, where the California Federation of Teachers won a state court of appeals case, (Cervisi)) over 20 years ago which defines all contingent college teachers as not having reasonable assurance and thereby eligible for UI . This issue has finally made it to the radar of the major faculty unions (American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and American Association of University Professors).  Some local unions have been helping their members get UI benefits for years, but clearly a reform in the system is needed, preferabley at the national level, to alter the “no reasonable assurance” requirement in the legislation.

One step in this effort has been the publication of “Access to Unemployment Benefits for  Contingent Faculty, a Guide for Applicants and a Strategy for Action” . This guide, available at  www.chicago cocal.org was partially funded by all three of the above faculty unions.

This rising awareness and the efforts to remedy is the problem of access to unemployment benefits is just one example of the overall movement to organize contingent faculty nationally, and globally. In that regard, interested readers might look at “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing adjuncts to change higher education”, by Joe Berry, 2005, Monthly Review Press, available at www.reclaimingtheivorytower.org.

Joe Berry is a labor educator at the University of Illinois and is chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, and the author, or co-author, of the two books on contingent academic labor

Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty”, by Berry, Stewart and Worthen, published by Chicago COCAL, 2008. Order from www.chicagococal.org

Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education was published in 2005 Monthly Review Press and the North American Alliance for Fair Employment. Look at the Reclaiming the Tower website for full information, individual sales, bulk ordering discounts, or to invite Berry to speak at an event.

See  Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor for news, contacts and links related to non-tenure track, “precarious” faculty.

7 Responses

  1. Nice post. I like your article “Unemployment Insurance, A Million College Faculty, and the New Economy in Higher Education”. The information in your article is very useful for me.

    I really like this part of your writing:
    This rising awareness and the efforts to remedy is the problem of access to unemployment benefits is just one example of the overall movement to organize contingent faculty nationally, and globally.

    I’ll come back and read some more of your articles.

    Keep the great job!

  2. Unemployment, both in the U.S. and the world as a whole, marches ever higher because the field of economics doesn’t account for the relationship between population density and per capita consumption.

    Following the beating the field of economics took over the seeming failure of Malthus’ theory, economists adamantly refuse to ever again consider the effects of population growth. If they did, they might come to understand that once an optimum population density is breached, further over-crowding begins to erode per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment.

    And these effects of an excessive population density are actually imported when a nation like the U.S. attempts to trade freely with other nations much more densely populated – nations like China, Japan, Germany, Korea and a host of others. The result is an automatic trade deficit and loss of jobs – tantamount to economic suicide.

    Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at http://PeteMurphy.wordpress.com.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  3. Hello. It is a great irony that people who give us education and are widely respected have such difficulties to get benefits when they need them. I agree that “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing adjuncts to change higher education” is a great publication which deals with the problem, however, it is also very useful for anyone who is somehow interested in higher education in general. Anyway, I’m happy to know there are people who care and don’t stop trying to improve such a situation.
    Take care,

  4. Thanks for the relevant and timely article on explaining context and basics of Unemployment Compensation for contingent faculty – a perfect introduction and lead in for the unemployment compensation initiative the New Faculty Majority Coalition is getting ready to roll out.

  5. […] – Joe Berry on unemployment insurance, college faculty, and the new economy in higher education: https://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/yu_contingentfacultry/ – Marc Bousquet on unemployment benefits and academia: […]

  6. Hi, thanks for sharing with us.

  7. How many other groups did not exist when UI was first introduced and are now disadvantaged because legislation can’t keep up.

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