Most full-time professors leave campus during the summer to renew themselves for the fall semester. They vacation, travel, do research, attend summer institutes, read to keep abreast of their fields, write papers, rework their syllabi, and benefit from one of the most attractive perks of the profession: summers free of teaching duties.
For many part-time faculty members, summer means it's time to join the unemployment lines. Their short-term contracts end in June. It is often difficult for adjuncts to find courses to teach in the summer because colleges offer fewer classes, and full-time faculty members who want to earn extra money often have preference over part-timers in getting those assignments.
Many part-timers will not know for certain if they will have a job in the fall until the new semester gets under way.
In the 1970s, the federal government decided that schoolteachers and college professors should not be eligible to collect unemployment compensation during scheduled breaks between terms (like Christmas) and summers when they do not teach.
At the time, there were few part-timers or adjuncts and perhaps the rationale made sense. After all, full-time schoolteachers and college professors aren't really "unemployed" during such periods. They have annual salaries, and they receive benefits, and they can expect to return to their teaching every fall and after each term break.
In order to make sure that full-timers could not collect unemployment during their breaks, the federal government drafted artful language in 1977 saying that if a school employee did not work during those periods, but had "reasonable assurance" of returning to work, then he or she would not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.
But part-time faculty members do not have annual contracts, or annual salaries, and the vast majority do not receive any benefits during the summers. When part-timers are not teaching, they are unemployed -- the major criteria for collecting unemployment.
Part-time faculty members certainly do not have any "reasonable assurance" of returning to work after such "breaks." In Washington State, many of our part-time contracts actually read: "It is understood that this employment is on a temporary basis and for the limited period set forth in the contract. The appointment is not subject to tenure. Neither this appointment nor any policy, rule, or regulation shall be construed as providing the employee with an expectancy of re-employment by the [community college] district."
So you would think that every summer thousands of adjuncts would head to the unemployment office to collect their weekly checks to tide them over until the college decides to rehire them again. And you would be wrong.
The same colleges and universities that save millions of dollars by hiring adjuncts and paying them 50 percent of what they pay full-timers, and denying them any form of job security, vigorously fight unemployment applications made by those same adjuncts.
What is more, they fight unemployment claims by adjuncts by telling the unemployment office that the adjuncts are ineligible because they have "reasonable assurance" of returning to work after their "scheduled" term breaks and summers.
In other words, a decades-old unemployment rule meant to keep full-timers from collecting unemployment is routinely used to keep part-timers from collecting unemployment.
None of this sounds either reasonable or assuring to part-time faculty members. Some colleges have even hired outside consultants to appeal every part-time unemployment claim, to challenge every application, to appeal every decision in favor of the adjunct professors. And in many cases, the colleges are winning and the adjuncts are losing.
There have been exceptions. A 1988 California Supreme Court decision ruled in favor of an adjunct professor and stated that part-time professors whose future employment depended on enrollment, budget, and program changes did not have reasonable assurance and were therefore eligible for unemployment compensation.
In Washington State, lawmakers have changed unemployment laws for part-timers three times since 1995, twice trying to write a similar provision into state law. Yet because the unemployment office continues to insist that each application for unemployment benefits must be considered on an individual basis, the colleges still claim that part-timers do have reasonable assurance, and often they win.
State laws make it illegal for an employer to make a false claim in order to avoid paying unemployment compensation. Yet enforcement appears to be nonexistent. I know of no state where a college has been fined for falsely claiming that an adjunct has reasonable assurance.
While it would be helpful to change state laws, federal law needs to make explicit that the "reasonable assurance" provision does not apply to adjuncts. And penalties for employers who make false claims to avoid paying unemployment should be enforced by state attorneys general.
I became an adjunct activist when I applied for unemployment and my college challenged my application on the grounds that I had job security that my short-term contract said I did not have.
For many adjuncts, unemployment compensation in the summer, which can equal the amount of teaching one or two classes, can make the difference between their being able to stay in the teaching profession, or having to opt for a new career.
But perhaps it is only when adjuncts apply for unemployment that they truly realize that the college has hired them for one reason only: to save money. And if it will save money by telling adjuncts that they do not have job security, while telling the unemployment office that they do, then the college will not hesitate to speak out of both sides of its mouth.