Adjuncts & the Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act imposes fines on large employers (defined as those employing 51+ people full time) that fail to offer affordable insurance coverage to their full-time employees. As might be imagined, this has created some concerns for such employers and their employees.
While I do believe that the act has some positive aspects, I tend to agree with those who think that health insurance should be split from employment. That is, it should be something people can select from a competitive market regardless of who they are working for. Properly done, this would be a considerable benefit to businesses and individuals. However, my main concern here is with the likely impact of the Act on adjuncts and others in a similar plight.
Adjuncts are, in many ways, the temp workers of academics. They are typically hired from semester to semester to teach a few classes at relatively low pay ($1,500-3,000 per class being typical) and generally have no benefits or job security. Adjuncts are usually classified as part-time employees, primarily because they often teach less than what is considered a full class load and typically do not have the other duties (such as committee work or advising) of full-time faculty. They are also typically classified as part-time so as to avoid the need to provide them with the benefits of full-time employees.
The Affordable Care Act defines a full-time employee as one who is employed an average of thirty hours a week. Currently, there is not a clear definition of how the part-time status of adjuncts should be determined, since adjuncts typically work in terms of credit hours taught rather than in terms of hours on the clock.
As might be suspected, colleges, universities and businesses have varied definitions of what counts as being part-time and not all of these match the Affordable Care Act definition. In response, some colleges and universities are already taking steps to address this matter. A common responses has been to cut the hours of adjuncts and other part-time workers to 29 hours or less to avoid having to provide affordable insurance or paying the fine. In the case of adjuncts, some schools have cut the number of courses and adjunct can teach, despite the fact that the matter of what counts as full time faculty under the act has not been sorted out.
As might be guessed, the reduction in hours is an unintended consequence of the act. However, it is obviously not good for the adjuncts and other part-time employees who are typically struggling to get as much work as they can. As it stands, adjuncts often have to teach classes at multiple colleges in order to get by and other part-time workers often have to hold multiple jobs. If employers start reducing the hours of part-time workers, they will need to find additional jobs to make up for the lost income, which will be at least inconvenient.
On the one hand, it is easy to blame the Affordable Care Act (or, to avoid the fallacy of reification, the people who passed the act). After all, the “big” employers are being forced into a trilemma: provide affordable health care or pay fines or cut employee hours down to 29 hours a week or less. Since the first two options cost money, the obvious choice is the third one. No doubt employers would prefer to keep things as they are, but the act forces them to make the employees pay the price for the act.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the employers deserve some of the blame, especially in the case of colleges and universities. After all, adjuncts are exploited by universities and do not even get the insurance coverage that is offered to students (I had better benefits as a grad student than as an adjunct). Adjuncts could be provided with affordable health care (as students are) it is just the case that employers are choosing not to do so in order to save some money. That is, it is just another case of the working people being screwed over by those with vastly larger salaries and plenty of benefits. It is not surprising that many of the same folks who weep over the rich being forced to pay marginally more taxes are also outraged that businesses would have to provide affordable health insurance to employees. There is also a certain meanness in the attitude that is essentially this: “What, we have to provide full-time employees with affordable health insurance or pay fines!? In that case, we’ll just fire people or cut their hours!”
My own view is that this illustrates the important of separating health insurance from employment. This would allow employers to hire people without worrying about the costs of providing insurance (or paying fines) and would allow individuals to get insurance apart from being employed. Of course, this would require serious revisions to the health insurance industry to make health care actually affordable for individuals, especially those working low-paying part time jobs. Naturally, employers could continue to offer health insurance, but this would not be mandatory. However, no matter what is done, someone obviously has to pay the bills.