Part-time state college profs sue for benefit equity 

By Kristin Palpini

With the number of part-time professors on the rise at college campuses, a group has banded together in an effort to gain benefits similar to their full-time colleagues.

In late November, unions for the state's public college and university faculty, the Massachusetts Community College Council and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court seeking coverage for 400-500 employees who teach multiple courses per semester at different public institutions, but are not considered eligible for state health insurance.

If successful, health insurance could be extended to many of the part-time professors on the state's community and state colleges, as well as the University of Massachusetts campuses. Extending coverage to community colleges alone could cost the state as much as $2 million per year.

"The state should be paying to cover their health insurance, but the state refuses to do so," said Joseph T. LeBlanc, MCCC's president.

LeBlanc argues that hundreds of adjuncts fit the state's definition of long-term part-time employees. That is, they work at least 18 hours and 45 minutes per week, which qualifies them for the state employee health insurance plan, administered by the Group Insurance Commission.

"The state, as an employer, should be doing the right thing," LeBlanc said.

Lisa Boodman, counsel for the GIC, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is being filed at a time when colleges and universities are increasingly hiring part-time faculty, also known as adjuncts or lecturers, to teach at their schools.

Across the nation, about 46 percent of faculty are part-time professors, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

Community colleges typically have a higher concentration of adjuncts.

At Greenfield Community College, for example, about 68 percent of the faculty is part-time, which is comparable to the national average.

In 2003, there were 3,824 part-time professors teaching at the state's 16 community colleges. In 2009, there were 4,340, a 13 percent increase in six years, according to the MCCC.

"If we're going to continue to overuse them then I think we should be providing them with health insurance," LeBlanc said..

Adjuncts are less costly, as schools are not required to provide them with health insurance and generally pay them less, and they are typically hired on a per semester basis.

LeBlanc, who has been working with professor advocacy groups for 10 years to get part-time faculty on the state plan, said legal representatives for the state will argue that because adjuncts are hired on a per-semester basis, they do not qualify for the state plan.

However, many adjuncts teach semester after semester at the same institution.

"The state says these instructors only teach term to term, but I could point out people who have been teaching term after term after term for 8, 10, 20 years," LeBlanc said.

John Cipora, a sociology professor at Holyoke Community College, counts among that group.

Cipora, one of the five faculty plaintiffs named in the MTA MCCC lawsuit, has been teaching at least three courses per semester at HCC since 2001. He has no health insurance.

"It would cost me $500 a month," Cipora said of purchasing insurance for himself. "The only way I can afford that is if I stop paying other bills, and I'm not going to do that."

Since 1999, health insurance premiums have gone up by 131 percent, outpacing workers' wages, which rose by 38 percent over the same period, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which annually tracks changes in health coverage and costs. Premiums rose faster than inflation, which grew by 28 percent over the last 10 years.

Meanwhile, the average adjunct at a public Massachusetts institution earns $3,000 to $5,000 per three-credit course.

"In spite of the fact that many of us teach far more than half-time loads, we're still considered employees when it's convenient for the state and then we're consultants when it's convenient for them," Cipora said.

"Fortunately," said Cipora, a single man living in Palmer, "I have my health. Knock on wood."

Beside the paycheck, there are other differences between adjuncts and full-time professors.

 Traditionally, part-time professors spend less time preparing for classes, usually share or have no on-campus office space and are generally less available to meet with students or their colleagues.

"I'm not trying to draw a direct equation here. I know full-time folks do a number of things that we don't," Cipora said. Still, he said, "there should be some equity."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at [1].

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