Summer is the starving season for adjuncts. Few of us get summer classes, and when we do, they are rarely enough to support us. Often the pay comes late into the summer and, because most of us live paycheck to paycheck, that leaves us with gaps in our ability to pay our bills. Applying for unemployment seems only logical, but we’re often unsuccessful, thanks to legislative exceptions to the rule crafted specifically for K-12 teachers, who have a summer break, but a “reasonable expectation of employment” in the fall, since they are usually full-time salaried and often tenured faculty. Sometimes, if we are initially successful, we can be overruled after funds have already been disbursed and the state will demand a refund, which is just another hardship for us.
NFM has been working with the U.S. Department of Labor to have them issue a clarification of this rule that will allow adjuncts to apply successfully for unemployment between terms in more places. In the meanwhile, below is a strategy that seems to work in Illinois, and may work elsewhere, from an Illinois resident and PrecariCorps Managing Director. Please be aware that this is not legal advice, simply an example of what works for one person in one place. In addition to this information, COCAL also has a pamphlet on applying for unemployment benefits.
Two weeks after filing for unemployment, I received it in my mailbox—a finely-wrought series of questions that seems to function as trip wires and booby traps designed to deny academics unemployment but which actually serve to help the state agency determine whether the reasonable assurance clause in federal law is applicable or not, as President of New Faculty Majority (NFM) Maria Maisto explained. The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire was written with the K-12 instructor in mind, which is evident in questions about substitute teaching, and reveals a clear lack of knowledge about how higher education employment functions in the post-NAWD economy, evident in phrases like paid sabbatical.
You should know two things: 1) NFM, AFT, NEA, and SEIU have been in conversations with the Department of Labor to issue new guidance to state agencies about the inapplicability of a key clause in federal law to the situation of contingent faculty, and 2) We should share all unemployment information and stories with NFM so it can present them as further evidence to the DOL and to state agencies of the ways in which contingent faculty are being denied their right to unemployment compensation.
The Myth of Reasonable Assurance
Before the series of questions begins, the state warns us that we are ineligible if we are in a break between terms/years or have “reasonable assurance” that we will work next term/year, but neither apply. We aren’t often given summer classes, although our schools are still in session, so we aren’t in fact in a break between terms. Due to the precarious nature of our jobs and “contracts,” a word that must always be put in quotes if we use it at all, we never have “reasonable assurance” of work. So, what are the questions, and how should we answer them so the state can understand this as we do?
First, it asks basics like name of employer and dates of employment.
Second: Did your employment end with the end of an academic year or term, or at the start of a vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. In my case, the answer is yes, as my assignment was complete after May 15th, and I was not given any summer classes.
Third: What is the reason for your unemployment? (Select One):
☐ Summer break
☐ Semester break
☐ Paid sabbatical
☐Customary vacation period
☐ Holiday recess
☐ Other:____________ (Please explain)
As none of the above euphemisms describe a typical #AdjunctSummer and the reasons behind it, “Other” is the only appropriate answer. My explanation was simple: although my school has a summer term, I was not offered any courses or additional work.
Maisto gave me this advice: “You can make the case that the next academic term is the summer and that you have no assignment for the summer term. Some people have been successful with this argument, especially since more and more schools are offering more and more summer classes. If they come back with a claim that summer is not an academic term, then the next move is to say that even if the next term is fall, you do not have reasonable assurance. As a contingent faculty member, by definition, you do not have reasonable assurance for any future work.”
Adjunct “Contracts” Admit Precarity
The next question that requires closer attention has to do with our “contracts” for fall semester: Do you have written, verbal or implied agreement to work for an academic institution in the next academic year, term or the period immediately following the vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. Maisto advises us to answer No: “Be ready to supply any documentation from your employment documents that has the inevitable language that asserts the institution’s ‘right’ to rescind the course assignment for any reason including funding and enrollment.” At Columbia College Chicago, this document is called an Adjunct Faculty Teaching Assignment Form, and it includes four sentences that admit to the precarity of our work:
As always the final decision of who teaches each course is the sole prerogative of the department chair. No teaching assignment can be considered final until student registration is completed [underlining in the original]. In the event that one or all of the classes listed below are cancelled, you will receive the $250 cancellation fee per course as defined in the PFAC [Part-Time Faculty Union at Columbia] agreement. In the event your teaching assignment changes during the semester [stress is mine], your department will complete a teaching re-assignment form, send a copy to the Provost’s Office, and give you a copy for your records.
What do we want? REASONABLE ASSURANCE.
When do we want it? YESTERDAY.
Whatever the rationale, be it budgetary restrictions, underenrollment, your department or administration failing to follow your union’s collective bargaining agreement, a full-time or tenure-track instructor’s course not filling, or a graduate student needing a course for practicum, it’s more likely that we won’t have the same schedule we were originally offered when the semester begins. Keep in mind the adjunct truth that it’s more likely for us to lose classes than to maintain them. We all have stories about that, even those of us with a union. That’s what unfair labor practices (ULPs) are for.
So when you answer the next yes/no question, Do you have reason to believe that you will be rehired to work for the next academic year or term?, answer No. Maisto advises us to be prepared to provide evidence of our own or other adjuncts’ courses being withdrawn after the initial offer, so save those emails, talk to your colleagues and unions if you have them, collect documentation, and be ready to defend your right to stable, predictable employment.