• August 20, 2014

IRS Says Colleges Must Be 'Reasonable' When Calculating Adjuncts' Work Hours

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the new law designed to expand health insurance to more Americans, has put adjuncts and their workload in the spotlight.

The Internal Revenue Service this month issued proposed rules for employers that acknowledge the special work circumstances of adjuncts—among them, the way adjuncts rack up work hours outside of the classroom—that need to be considered when evaluating whether their employers must provide them with health benefits.

Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2014, employees who work at least a 30-hour work week must receive health benefits from their employers. Some colleges are concerned about how to tally up the hours adjuncts spend on the job to determine if they have reached that full-time status. Most adjuncts don't receive health benefits, and the legislation appeared to pave the way for them to finally get access.

The proposed rules, announced in the Federal Register on January 2, don't provide a hard and fast formula for how to calculate an adjunct's workload, but "further guidance may be provided," the announcement says. The agency is collecting comments on the proposal through March 18.

In the meantime, colleges must "use a reasonable method for crediting hours of service," the IRS document says. In the case of an adjunct faculty member, the document adds, it would not be a reasonable method of calculating an instructor's work hours for colleges to take into account "only classroom or instruction time and not other hours that are necessary to perform the employee's duties, such as class-preparation time."

'A Huge Step Forward'

Although the rules are still in the making, Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts, said what the IRS had proposed so far seems promising.

"I think the IRS is on the right track in recognizing that adjunct faculty constitute a unique category of worker in terms of how their work is currently recognized and compensated," Ms. Maisto wrote in an e-mail. "It is helpful that the IRS is recognizing that there is a lack of uniformity in the way that adjunct work hours are currently calculated and how adjuncts are treated. This seems to be a huge step forward in the government's education about the true nature of contingent academic work."

But even as the IRS is working to provide colleges with the guidelines they have sought from the agency, a few institutions have made pre-emptive moves by cutting back the number of hours adjuncts are allowed to work—among them, Youngstown State University, Stark State College, and the Community College of Allegheny County, where at least 200 adjuncts face a newly instituted cap on the number of courses they can teach. The goal is to keep them below the 30-hour-a-week threshold that would trigger the health-benefit requirement, which institutions say they cannot afford.

Ms. Maisto said the New Faculty Majority was trying to track whether other colleges have followed suit, but so far a pattern has not surfaced. Some adjuncts fear talking about the existence of such measures on their campuses, while others are largely protected by contracts their unions have negotiated, she said.

Several higher-education organizations have sought guidance from the IRS on adjuncts and the new health-care law, including the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. The group's president, Andy Brantley, said in an e-mail that "while we appreciate the efforts" of the IRS to note that tracking hours for adjunct faculty is difficult, "we hope that they will be able to provide additional clarity beyond what was issued."

Groups that have previously submitted comments to the IRS on the issue include the American Federation of Teachers, which told the agency that the method to calculate work hours for adjunct faculty members should be based on work done inside and outside the classroom.

The agency's newly proposed rules took note of the federation's explanation of how, typically, an instructor works at least three hours a week for every credit hour taught. By that formula, an adjunct who teaches four three-credit classes would be considered full time under the new legislation.

Ms. Maisto said part of the New Faculty Majority's response would be to push "for a very clear definition of faculty work that is consistent with professional standards such as those articulated by the MLA and other disciplinary organizations."

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