Six higher-education groups and one adjunct instructor voiced concerns to a panel of Internal Revenue Service representatives here on Tuesday about regulations the agency is considering that could affect how colleges decide whether to provide health benefits to their adjunct faculty members.
Under President Obama's signature health-reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which takes effect in January 2014, employees of large companies who work 30 hours or more a week must receive health benefits from their employers.
But how the law applies to adjuncts is a matter of debate. Adjuncts are paid based on the number of courses they teach, not by the hour, which makes it difficult for universities and colleges to calculate how much time they work for each class.
The IRS recognized that problem when it released its proposed rules relating to employers and employee health benefits, but instead of providing a formula for calculating adjuncts' hours, it simply advised colleges to "use a reasonable method for crediting hours of service." It also stated that time spent working outside of the classroom, such as preparing for classes and grading assignments, should be considered.
The proposed rules were met with a flood of responses. More than 500 comments were posted on the agency's Web site by the March 18 deadline, and 21 people, mostly representatives of labor organizations, testified at Tuesday's hearing. New Faculty Majority, the American Council on Education, the National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union, the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, and the American Federation of Teachers were among the groups with higher-education interests that were represented.
Kenneth H. Ryesky, who is an adjunct professor of taxation and business law at Queens College of the City University of New York and a former IRS estate-tax lawyer, also spoke on behalf of adjuncts but did not represent any organization.
Many speakers affiliated with higher education argued that colleges were reversing the intent of the Affordable Care Act by reducing adjuncts' work hours or course loads to keep them below the level at which employers would have to provide health insurance. A handful of colleges have already adopted policies to cap part-time faculty members' work time at 29 hours a week, an action the commenters deemed unacceptable.
The speakers stressed the need for a thoughtful calculation of adjunct hours as well as job protection for part-time faculty members. But the solutions the groups proposed to the IRS varied.
Steven M. Bloom, director of federal relations at the American Council on Education, said one fair method for calculating adjunct hours would be to use a one-to-one ratio. In other words, he said, for every hour spent in the classroom, an adjunct works one hour outside of it. He said data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education supported that model.
But other groups rejected the idea, stating that the one-to-one ratio was "too low" and "absurd." They said it's impossible to make that comparison, as the work level differs by instructor and subject area.
Another suggestion by Mr. Bloom was to count adjuncts as full-timers if they taught at least 75 percent of the course load of a full-time, non-tenure-track employee.
Stephen Tackney, deputy division counsel and deputy associate chief counsel of the IRS, asked why Mr. Bloom would compare adjuncts to those off the tenure track rather than those on the tenure track. Mr. Bloom said tenure-track faculty members often have responsibilities that those off the tenure track do not, such as research and committee participation.
Anne McLeer, director of research and strategic planning for Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union, said that while tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members do have different responsibilities outside of the classroom, the quality of the instruction is no different. Employees in both positions are held to the same standards and expectations in the classroom, and students expect the same pedagogical excellence, she said. In some cases, adjuncts teach as many courses as do full-time employees on the tenure track.
Maria C. Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, agreed that any standard for determining the time status of adjunct faculty members should be based on parity with tenured and tenure-track professors, and said it should not be a universal formula.
Other organizations, such as the American Federation of Teachers, also said the IRS should avoid blanket formulas and should require universities and colleges to negotiate with contingent faculty members and to create a fair method for calculating full-time status.
Amy Clary, a research associate at the AFT, said the law should promote thoughtful discussion and should not be "used as a cover for bad employer behavior."
The Affordable Care Act "shouldn't be a scapegoat," Ms. Clary said, referring to colleges that had reduced adjuncts' work hours to skirt the law. "It's supposed to expand benefits, not inspire a type of gaming."
One way such actions could be avoided is by providing a narrower definition of "reasonable," said Roy Houseman, a legislative assistant for the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers. For example, the regulations could say it's unreasonable for employers to slash employees' hours to avoid having to provide health benefits.
Mr. Ryesky said after the hearing that he was impressed with the feedback each speaker had received from the four-member panel, which included representatives of the IRS and the Department of Treasury. He also applauded the comments presented by advocates for adjuncts.
"The adjunct-faculty advocates and their allies all synergistically buttressed one another's talking points in their collective testimony," he wrote in an e-mail to his colleagues following the session. "The diversity—and effective unity—served us well in getting our message across."
But it may be some time before anyone receives clarification on the proposed rules. Although the IRS previously stated that "further guidance may be provided," it gave no indication of when that might happen.
"The IRS has a full plate," Mr. Ryesky wrote. "They have lots of factors to consider. No matter what they do, there will be many unhappy campers. Nobody will get all that they desire out of this, but we could be postured far, far worse than we are."