What To Do If…You’re Audited (and things I learned along the way) Part 1

by Pollyanna Proffie

TL:DR? Perhaps many of us on contracts who do the lion’s share of adjunctical work can deduct expenses on Schedule A.

I was audited this year. Just two weeks before I filed 2014 taxes. In audit land, you are notified about six weeks before your audit appointment. Good thing that my shoebox system is pretty comprehensive. Prep involved pulling things out of it and taping them to 8 1/2 by 11 sheets, then putting them in folders, and silently saying to myself “what-evs” so as to be the change I seek in the world: NO WORRIES. This did not really work. I have not sweated so much along with sinking-jumping tummy since forever.

Long story short: No more Schedule C deductions[1] for me because my small consulting practice of technical writing primarily for government agencies pretty much dried up starting in 2008 (economic downturn, Sequester, and, well, general defunding of Science). And I owe a bit on the last year of consulting because you need to earn a percent of your income in order to even use this deduction schedule. I turned out to be about $475 short. So, I owe a fair amount and am paying now on a plan. And, yes, I decided not to bill a federal agency for some work in 2014 because, well, that amount will not get me into the sweet zone. So: more work for free.

Auditors comb through your life using a careful script. Auditors are rather focused on the script and actually quite neutral in tone. I found this neutrality somewhat calming but also unnerving. A number of questions about my working conditions and possible sources of other funds went on and on and on. I know this is typical. Yet, as these questions wound down, with some that sounded like off-script questions, I suddenly offered:

“Are you wondering why a professor makes so little money? You have my W-2 forms. And we have discussed my dwindling consulting practice and my associated expenses quite closely.”

Translation: Are you wondering how I live on this money? What MUST I be hiding, because I am a freaking ENGLISH PROFESSOR.

Very carefully, I explained our working conditions that are pretty much typical across the country. I live in a major East Coast city and teach at a huge R1 land grant university. My auditor’s computer screen was not turned to me, but I think she may have checked a February 2015 Wall Street Journal article I referred her to, as well as a Washington Post first-person piece by an adjunct.

The verdict on my audit was mixed: my consulting on Schedule C largely survived the audit. In other words, I am not a tax cheat. And I did the deductions correctly. Yay, TurboTax and the one year circa 2005 I paid an accountant for filing. I modeled my forms after his guidance for years. Bad news? I owe in part, but not because I cheated or was stupid. But the worst thing: No more Schedule C deductions. Why? No more consultancy money to help cover my food, rent, and as-sundries of life.

My razor-thin life is now under water. I try to be calm.

I quickly cajoled my auditor into talking to me a bit about shifting to a Schedule A system. I think she entered into this side topic willingly because she could see that without Schedule C deductions for a percentage of cell phone use, home internet access, one professional association dues, three technical journal subscriptions, and the teeny tiny square footage deduction for my desk and chair, much less money to live on.

Her first caution was “I do not think you can use Schedule A. That is for unreimbursed work expenses. Your W-2 from (Think Huge U) means that you are likely not eligible for these deductions.”

We spent time looking at my contract, my hours on campus for teaching and office hours; she was really surprised to find out that most of my work in grading and responding to student work was done at home, by email (on my laptop or ancient desktop or smartphone). My aging smartphone came in handy in two ways:

  1. I texted a colleague who took photos of our little office squat from several views. These photos helped convince her that there really were twelve people who cycled in and out of the four desk-set up with only one computer and a landline desk phone that we never had the codes to install a working voice mail box. My desk spouse looked pretty scruffy in a absent-minded professor way in one of the selfies, so thanks, D, for that nice touch. (#IRSselfies, sorta? Whoa, these are a thing!)
  2. On the same smartphone, I opened my email to one of my student folders; the sound of “you’ve got mail” dinged, dinged, dinged. Yay for real-time emails from students to make the case that we work everywhere 24/7! I showed her a couple of the long strings of student queries, many date stamped at 10 PM or my responses at 4:50 AM. And, get this: because I do not clean out my gmail inbox very often, when I sorted more than five years of student emails, that number in my inbox is 20,592.

Stay tuned for details of my second audit session, in which I continue to shamelessly probe my auditor’s willingness to guide me in a bold and yet modest proposal: that I deduct on Schedule A for 2014. Yes, I will need to refile an amended form in October. Also, I can tell you about the response of a “home business auditor specialist” to me when looking at my “financial innards.”

Hey, I survived one audit. I can endure another, right? Because PrecariCorps? (waving!) Anyone want to join me in my IRS probe, wherein I probe them because they probed me?

[1]Warning: IRS document of complexity; read about Sole Proprietorships in this Dummy’s Guide for clarity.

Pollyanna Proffie is a Huge U Comp Instructor (will a hyphen help? I believe it will: Retyping Huge-U Comp Instructor, there, fixed that)YES–THAT HYPHEN IS GOOD  making payments to the EYE R ESS for another six months….with interest (boo) but no penalty (yay!)….can we get a pro bono accountant in the comment string? That would be fab. I will pay in tears of relief. Thanks NFM for the talk-type therapy moment on this blog. And, LK, my upstart kitty lady buddy.


What To Do If…Your Colleague Brags About Getting Hired When You Didn’t

Adjunct Army-RCBIn this column, we bring you the anonymous, ripped-from-the-headines, er, -Facebook lament of many an adjunct passed over for a tenure track position despite years of faithful service–and our equally anonymous advice from the Adjunct Army who’ve been there.

Q: If a fellow adjunct were, hypothetically, tooting her own horn about how she was recently hired somewhere you have served dutifully with heart, mind, body, and spirit for over 20 years — and she seems in her own mind to be “favored” — besides feeling depressed, what might you do? Hypothetically.

A: Many of the fortunate may not realize how painful it is for adjuncts to have this happen, and bragging about it only rubs salt in the wounds. So if you’re the lucky one, how about using your newfound privilege to advocate for those in the position you managed to escape? Whatever you do, please do not transform overnight into a tenuresplaining jerk.

If you’re on the other end of this crappy stick, here are some suggestions from the Adjunct Army:

  1. Break everything in sight. No exaggeration.
  2. Hate her with everything you have, and acknowledge that it is perfectly reasonable to hate her, and that it is OK to hate her.
  3. let the hate flow The Emperor approves of this strategy.
  4. Laugh. Given enough rope…
  5. Write about it. Interrogate the issues & find a place for it on-line–a blog or webzine friendly to adjuncts where you can spread the word. (Majority Rule waving here! Hellooo!)

All joking aside (and we’re not sure the Adjunct Army is entirely joking), NFM’s fearless leader Maria Maisto responds with this advice:

Did you apply for the same job? Do you have the same or more qualifications? Is it for a job teaching classes you already teach or have taught successfully? If yes to all, I’d be talking to an attorney about a possible age discrimination suit. There have been a number of lawsuits using this tactic, at Wilbur Wright College, Clark College, and Harold Washington College, and this may be one way individual adjuncts can beat the “stale Ph.D.” objection.

But the advice to the newly hired is just as important. Just be (silently) thankful, and stand up for your colleagues. And remember that tenure ain’t that much of a protection anymore.

-Lee Kottner

What To Do If… You Want to File for Unemployment for #AdjunctSummer–The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire

August is the Cruellest Month-RCBFirst in the Series “What To Do If…”

NFM is cross posting this information in conjunction with and with the permission of  PrecariCorps, on whose blog this first appeared.

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.

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.

Brianne Bolin