The Life of an Adjunct

Guest post by Donna Kalinowsky

Dear Community College President,

Perhaps you do not know what life is like for an adjunct. When I started here in 1992 or so, I made about $9000 per year. Even then, that was not much. I was eligible for Section 8 housing, food stamps, fuel assistance, Medicaid, head start for my kids, access to local food pantries, Christmas Elf programs for children’s gifts, and the Earned Income credit. Thanks to these things, I was able to raise 4 children, ages 29, 27, 14 and 9.Thanks to the union, my income has gradually risen, but it has always been less than $30,000 per year, even when enrollment was high. I used to be able to count on teaching 4 courses per semester. Then it was 3 courses. This semester my 3 courses were reduced to two – one course was canceled even though it was fully enrolled with 12 students. My Dean transferred my students to a full-time instructor’s class. So, I have had to survive on less than $8000 for the period from January through May. For the fall, I was again only assigned 2 courses, one of which has a high probability of being cancelled. So, I may have to live on $4000 from September to December. The summer is a wild card – I am scheduled to teach 2 courses, but whether both will run is an open question.

So, under the very best circumstances I can expect to make $24,000 this year. A more likely scenario is that my total yearly income will be less than $20,000. That is under the poverty level. The only bright spot is that I will again be eligible for food stamps (my income last year was barely above the cutoff).

Can you understand why adjuncts are frustrated? It’s not just me and it’s not just this college It’s all across the commonwealth and all across the country. It’s been a long, long time since adjunct were experts only hired for specialized courses. The new hires in the math department have no skills that other math department adjuncts do not have. We are now used as a cheap source of labor. Now maybe you can understand why the union is asking for large increases in adjunct pay. We would like to be able to support ourselves at a living wage. Even minimum wage workers earn $20,800 per year.

You may not be aware of this, but here is how the current adjunct retirement system works. A certain percentage of our pay is put into an OBRA account. The state of Massachusetts pays nothing. It is not really a retirement plan – it is just a forced savings account with no guaranteed payout like Social Security. In fact, we are forbidden from contributing to Social Security, even if we pay the full 12.6% ourselves (I considered doing that once). Not only that, if we have ever contributed to Social Security at a previous job and have somehow managed to get enough credits to qualify for Social Security, our benefits are significantly reduced because of the OBRA “savings account”!

So, what could you do to help? Lots. First, put a moratorium on hiring additional adjuncts. That just makes the situation worse when there are not enough courses to go around as it is. Second, support the union’s efforts to either allow adjuncts to be in the Social Security system, the state retirement system, or make the state contribute something to OBRA, even if it’s just .5% (Massachusetts is the only state that contributes nothing to adjunct retirement). Third, support efforts by the union to require colleges to hire fulltime from among current adjuncts before going outside. If we are qualified to teach as adjuncts, why would we not be qualified to teach full time? We have the same qualifications and teach almost all the same courses as full timers. The old arguments about specialized courses taught by experts no longer apply. Fourth, support prorated pay and benefits for adjuncts. I think if you search your conscience you know that that is the only fair solution. The pay disparity between part time and full time is far, far larger than between men and women or between whites and nonwhites or even the college educated and high school dropouts.

I hope this explains a lot of the discontent you may see among adjuncts. I am just one. I am not unique. Thousands of us across the country are just trying to survive. It seems sometimes like administration is just making it harder and harder, looking for any and every excuse to cut our pay or even take away our jobs. Already our budgets are cut to the bone. You can do a lot to help. I hope you will take this opportunity to fight with the union for a fair contract during the upcoming contract negotiation.

Thanks for listening,

Just another adjunct


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