Obamacare Hits Adjuncts Hard

Thanks to Obamacare, the situation of adjuncts and other “contingent faculty” has become much more precarious. “Universities are cutting back on their work hours to comply with Obamacare,” the Daily Caller reports, in order to avoid that law’s requirement of benefits to those who work more than 30 hours a week. “Adjunct college instructors,” the Huffington Post noted last August, “are caught in purgatory as their employers, which have increasingly relied on them as a cheap source of labor, decide if they will restrict the hours the instructors are allowed to work to avoid providing them with health insurance.”

More recent data suggests that the adjuncts and other contingents are no longer in purgatory but are being rapidly transported to a much hotter location. According to a major survey of college and university human resources officers commissioned by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by Gallup and released several days ago, “48 percent of respondents say their institutions already have placed or enforced limits on adjunct faculty to avoid having to meet new federal requirements of employer-provided health insurance,” and of those institutions that have not “35 percent say they are considering doing so.”

Well, of course they are reducing adjuncts’ hours, and that’s not all they are doing. In announcing major changes to its health benefits, the University of Virginia recently explained that Obamacare is “projected to add $7.3 million to the cost of the University health plan in 2014 alone,” and that “in future years U.Va. could face millions more in taxes” because of the “Cadillac tax” on plans providing generous benefits. “Effective in 2018, the 40 percent tax would apply to the cost of an individual plan with average premiums per employee topping $10,200.” Since the average premium per employee in 2012 was $9,270 and “U.Va. anticipates its medical plan costs to rise by about 6.8% each year,” by 2018 it will be well above the “Cadillac tax” threshold unless additional major changes are made.

The only thing surprising about universities’ cost-cutting response to expensive new Obamacare requirements is that so many academics seemed shocked and surprised. Robert Conlon, a senior vice president at Sibson Consulting who works with colleges on employment and other issues, told Inside Higher Ed that “he was unsurprised that institutions were taking advantage of the “glaring” loophole provided in the federal health care law” by cutting adjunct hours, but he did not explain why he thought the 30-hour threshold for requiring benefits was a “loophole” and not an integral part of the Affordable Care Act. Does he think that “loophole” should be plugged just for academics or for all employees? Since many adjuncts are relatively young and healthy, they would seem to be ideal Obamacare targets for forced entry into the new exchanges.

Similarly, Prof. Gary Rhodes, director of Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, emailed Inside Higher Ed that curtailing adjunct hours is “a shame.” Instead of “modeling best practices in the employment of contingent employees,” he groused, “most colleges and universities are moving to violate the spirit of the [Affordable Care Act] and modeling the worst of private sector practices in not paying health benefits to valuable members of their instructional work force.”

Condon the consultant says what universities are doing is “logical” but it is not “the right thing to do.” Amy Hoff, an adjunct who teaches art in several Maryland colleges, is quoted by the Daily Caller saying “it is frustrating to feel like, that in the face of this legislation designed to help people, that instead it’s hurting people.” But Penn State’s Gary Rhodes said it best: universities responding in entirely predictable ways to the requirements clearly written into Obamacare are violating its “spirit”? This talk of “design” and “spirit” is loose construction with a vengeance. It reveals a Job (not job)-like confusion over how a beneficent Obama could preside over such bad things happening to so many of his good and devout followers.

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