Adjunct faculty battle for health benefits at California community colleges
Community college districts have virtually ignored a nagging issue: There is little funding to cover health benefits for two-thirds of their academic workforce.
Community college districts have virtually ignored a nagging issue: There is little funding to cover health benefits for two-thirds of their academic workforce.
Health care benefits have emerged as a battleground for adjunct instructors, who are critical to the mission of California’s community colleges to educate about 1.5 million of the state’s most vulnerable students.
The 72 local districts that govern the colleges and the state have virtually ignored a nagging issue: There is little funding to cover health benefits for two-thirds of their academic workforce.
At the same time, 68 of the districts allow their elected part-time trustees, who vote on adjuncts’ contracts, to take full health benefits, an EdSource investigation shows. Adjuncts qualify for some health care benefits in 39 districts and none in the 33 others.
That could soon change.
In a year with a record budget surplus, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed pumping $200 million into a historically vastly underfunded state program designed to reimburse districts half of what they pay toward adjunct health coverage.
The benefits that nearly all districts provide their elected trustees, however, are well funded.
Nearly always, in those districts, trustees are afforded full benefits, records show. In districts where adjuncts do get benefits, they routinely contribute high payroll deductions or have to pay for policies themselves and receive partial reimbursement.
If policies were cars, the trustees would get loaded Cadillac Escalades. Adjuncts? Think a used Honda, with the oil light on.
College districts are not the only public agencies in California that provide hefty health care benefits for part-time positions on governing boards that typically meet a few times monthly. In 2013, the Bay Area News Group reported, the practice was rampant in special districts across California with pay and benefits of $50,000 yearly or more for some part-time officeholders, many at obscure agencies.
Unlike other agencies where workers are primarily full-time, community colleges alone have a predominately part-time workforce to carry out the system’s mission. California Community Colleges, with its 115 campuses, is an open enrollment system where many students are getting a last chance to go to college.
To qualify for health care benefits, adjuncts typically have to teach two or three courses in one district. But that means they have to worry about keeping enough classes to remain eligible for benefits, and they can lose coverage if a class is suddenly canceled.
Adjuncts often have to work a semester or more before they are eligible for coverage.
Mark Lieberman, an adjunct communications professor who teaches at four districts in San Diego County, said it is always stressful to make sure he is going to be eligible for medical benefits in a coming semester. It’s what he calls the “real sticky part” of planning his full-time work cobbled together from multiple part-time teaching gigs.
It’s “like going to the racetrack and betting on all the horses,” Lieberman said. He takes all the work offered to him, betting that at least one district will come through with the 50 percent teaching load, generally two classes, that his districts require to qualify for coverage.
The stress that a class can be canceled on short notice and benefits eligibility will vanish with it, is constant, he said. He can teach up to three classes at a district in a semester, but there is no guarantee he’ll get that many. Two is more typical.
If one of them gets canceled, which happens, or if someone with more seniority than me has a class that gets canceled and they come take mine, which happens, then I’m in danger of losing my health benefits. … So, I’m betting on that district. And then I bet on this district over here, and then I bet on that district over there so that I can be sure at the end of the day, something’s going to come through.”
He describes the constant shuffling:
You have to have your money on the one that wins.”
But, even when he wins, that means he’s allowed to get the group coverage for which he has to contribute as much as 50 percent of the cost of the benefits policy.
Lieberman said he loves teaching college:
I get to help people for a living. I help them get better jobs.”
But, he added:
I do the hustle. I take a lot of classes to make sure that I don’t lose them, but the threat of losing my benefits is ever-present.”
Trustees’ benefits are automatic
Trustees are eligible for benefits at 68 of 72 districts throughout their four-year terms.
An academic who studies the state’s community colleges said the disparity between the trustees and adjuncts is troubling.
Devon Graves, an assistant professor of education, social work and kinesiology at Stanislaus State, said:
That needs to be called out. How can you tap into a resource like health insurance and not provide it for your own faculty? That’s problematic beyond definition.”
At the small Gavilan Community College district that serves San Benito and southern Santa Clara counties, trustees receive benefits while adjunct instructors, who make up 75 percent of the faculty, don’t.
Last year’s local union president, Cherise Mantia, didn’t know about that disparity until she was shown district compensation data during an interview with EdSource.
As she stared at Gavilan records showing the district spent $106,700 on benefits, including health care, for five trustees, in 2020, the last year for which data is available, Mantia said:
I am really disappointed. I am just trying to digest this.”
Last year, the union asked the district to provide health coverage to adjuncts, said Mantia, herself a part-timer. Trustees told her, “It’s too expensive,” she said.
We talk a lot about equity with our students, but I don’t see the equity for part-time faculty. … And that disturbs me because if we are institutions of higher education and we don’t value the faculty who are teaching our students, then what does that say about the value that we place on the students who are in our institutions?”
The five trustees who received benefits in 2020, including board President Edwin Diaz, a retired primary school administrator, did not respond to EdSource’s calls for comment. District President Kathleen A. Rose didn’t respond to questions about Gavilan’s benefits policy.
Even when adjuncts are offered coverage, some of it is minimal at best.
The Citrus Community College District in Glendora sets aside $10,000 yearly to contribute toward adjuncts’ medical costs, its faculty contract shows. The part-timers must pay for their own coverage first and then seek $500 reimbursements from the district. In 2000, the district spent more than $100,000 on total benefits for trustees that included health care for four trustees, records show.
Citrus employed more than 300 adjuncts in 2020, 64 percent of the faculty, data show.
Linda Chan, president of the Citrus College’s Adjunct Faculty Association and a leader in the California Federation of Teachers’ effort to win adjuncts better benefits, said:
We are very much aware of the obviously disgusting health care provided by Citrus College. The board of trustees has always been given more than their fair share, and we point this out as often as we can.”
A spokesperson for the Citrus district said the district provides trustee benefits in accordance with state law.
Elected to four-year terms, often in down-ballot races that draw little interest or media coverage, trustees typically attend several meetings a month, hire and supervise district chancellors, pass budgets and vote on negotiated contracts.
Under state education law, they are paid between $120 to $1,500 a month based on the number of full-time equivalent students attending the district.
A different, general state law governing local agencies including cities, special and school districts allows the elected officials governing those agencies to tap benefits coverage if local policies allow it. Nothing forces individuals to take the benefits, and data across a range of agencies shows some decline, including community college trustees.
But what’s offered aren’t routine benefits. The law says they “shall not be greater than the most generous schedule of benefits being received” by executive-level employees, almost always with the agency bearing 100 percent of the cost.
Reaction to the practice in the community colleges is muted. California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, through a spokesman, said:
It’s a matter of local control.”
As both president of the board of governors of the California Community Colleges that oversees the overall system and an elected trustee of the Los Rios district that runs four colleges around Sacramento, Pam Haynes has both a state and local perspective on the practice of giving both trustees and part-time faculty benefits.
Trustee benefits are about making sure elected officials receive adequate compensation for their duties overseeing a public agency, she said.
The Los Rios district paid her benefits worth $2,366 in 2020, records show. Haynes said that was for dental coverage only, adding she gets health coverage elsewhere. She’s held office there for 22 years.
Trustees can still receive benefits after they leave office, although it’s difficult to know how many are getting them. Most districts have adopted policies that limit lifetime benefit to trustees elected between 1981 and 1995 and who served at least 12 years in office. That rules out many current officeholders, the vast majority of whom were elected after 1995.
Most districts post their policies governing the practice online. Oakland’s habitually financially troubled Peralta district that Oakley is mulling whether to take over, doesn’t. Its spokesperson, Mark Johnson, told EdSource in January that its trustees receive “lifetime benefits” under a policy he described as:
… not currently documented in our published board policies and administrative procedures.”
He would not say how many former trustees are covered.
Johnson directed a reporter to a policy he said allows trustee benefits, but that document describes compensation for meetings. It does not mention medical benefits specifically the way other districts’ policies do.
Ann Motte, first elected to the Mt. San Jacinto district in Riverside County in 1992, received $40,133 in benefits in 2020, records show, among the highest amounts in the data EdSource reviewed. She will be eligible to keep getting those benefits after she leaves the board, the board’s policy states.
Mt. San Jacinto doesn’t provide medical coverage to adjuncts.
When asked about the lack of benefits for part-timers, Motte responded.
Adjunct faculty benefits are union negotiated.”
Mt. San Jacinto’s part-time faculty union has attempted to win benefits for adjuncts and been shut down, said Sandra Flowers, a part-time history professor and union officer:
All they say is no, no, no, no and no. …. We have to go to (bargaining) impasses just to get raises.”
The union is set to return to bargaining in June, Flowers said, and intends to push for health care coverage.
At San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, trustee Karen Martinez is one of two trustees whose 2020 benefits cost $46,995, the highest cost in available data. It includes medical, dental, vision and life insurance, a district spokesperson said.
Separately, Martinez has been accused in a lawsuit of abusing benefits as an elected school board member before becoming a community college trustee.
In April, San Jose’s Alum Rock Union Elementary School District sued her, claiming that when she was a trustee there between 2012 and 2018 she accepted benefits that cost more than the district’s policy allowed. No specific dollar amount was listed, but the suit claimed she owes Alum Rock more than $10,000.
Martinez told the Mercury News in June she intended to pay back the money and would seek an installment plan from the district. But court records show as of Friday that she hasn’t answered the suit. In November, Alum Rock sought a default judgment against her for an unspecified amount.
There have been no hearings or filings in the case since February, when records show Martinez didn’t attend a court status conference. She didn’t respond to EdSource’s repeated requests for comment.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said the governor’s intent “is to provide a significant increase” in funding so college districts can “expand health care coverage” for part-time faculty. Palmer said the proposed spending will be reviewed as the budget goes through modifications before a revised version is released in May.
Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, chair of Assembly Higher Education Committee, who worked in the past as an adjunct, said he backs Newsom’s plan and expects it to pass. In a statement, Medina said:
I am confident this legislation is something we can achieve in 2022.”
The community college system’s board of governors pushed for Newsom to provide more funding for part-time faculty, voting last year to ask for $300 million in this year’s budget. Health care was “the bulk of the ask,” said a spokesman for Chancellor Oakley.
If the Legislature goes along with Newsom’s proposal, it would pump money into a program that has been woefully underfunded and largely inadequate.
The program is designed to reimburse districts half of the premium costs of adjunct benefits, but it hasn’t had the funds to do that. Instead, it has given out “pennies on the dollar,” Oakley said in a statement. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
The fund totaled $490,000 in the 2020-21 state fiscal year, records show. The San Diego Community College District spent a little more than $7 million on health coverage for its part-timers in that fiscal year and was entitled to a 50 percent reimbursement from the state. But it was reimbursed only $136,362, or 4 cents for each dollar spent, the rate all districts that submitted reimbursement requests received.
In fiscal year 2020, the 35 districts that provided at least some health benefit to adjuncts spent $25.2 million on premiums and expected about half to be reimbursed. Instead, they got $490,000, state records show.
The fund was cut by more than 50 percent during the budget crisis caused by the Great Recession that started in 2007 “and never recovered” in the years since, said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges, an advocacy group representing both full- and part-time faculty:
Health care costs have risen dramatically in this time, leaving many part-time faculty with the dual problems of increased costs and limited support.”
The system also lacks any central provider of benefits, leaving the 72 districts to shop for their own insurance — for both adjuncts and full-time employees — on the open market.
The association’s president, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, told EdSource in December that the way districts provide benefits needs to change.
She called for “a state pool” for policies that would make it more affordable for both districts and part-timers.
The California Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty at 28 districts, successfully lobbied Newsom to include $200 million for health care in his tentative budget. Increased medical coverage is “the top priority of our members” identified in surveys, said Matthew Hardy, a union spokesman:
We’re going to make sure that the Legislature doesn’t scale that back.”
Members will testify at legislative hearings “to put a face” on the issue, he said. It will also renew efforts to bargain collectively for health care for members as contracts come due for renegotiation.
With 72 districts, some in which adjuncts have their own bargaining units and others in which part- and full-timers negotiate together, negotiations will likely play out over several years as current contracts expire. Besides the federation of teachers, the Communications Workers of America and the California Community College Independents represent full- and part-time faculty.
Late Friday, the state Legislative Analysts’ Office issued a report that raised questions about the proposal and called on Newsom to provide more information about it.
The administration hasn’t “provided any data on the share of part-time faculty who access health insurance through an outside job, spouse, Medi-Cal, Medicare, or Covered California,” analysts wrote. Information on individual district policies is needed, including policy costs and whether adjuncts’ dependents are eligible for coverage. Without that information, the “proposal could have unintended, counterproductive effects — potentially exacerbating rather than mitigating health coverage inequities,” the report states, adding that the collection of that information may take too long to include the proposed spending in Newsom’s revised budget due in May.
Newsom and the Legislature will also be asked to reconsider a bill that would allow adjuncts to teach more than three courses at one district. Newsom vetoed the bill in 2021 but Medina said he will soon reintroduce it.
Adjuncts are at a disadvantage in the current benefits system, said John Martin, head of a faculty advocacy group, the California Part-time Faculty Association.
Martin, a history adjunct in the Butte-Glenn and Shasta districts, said:
Our education system is skewed for those at the top. … The majority of us get crumbs.”
We’re trying to correct the power. We don’t want more power. We want equal power.”
This story was written and reported by Thomas Peele and originally published by EdSource. Daniel J. Willis, EdSource data journalist, contributed to this investigation.
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