College limits part-time staff’s hours to avoid Obamacare costs

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Adjunct professors prohibited from working more than 30 hours per week

Starting next year the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will require that large employers offer insurance to any worker putting in more than 30 hours per week. But the 600 part-time professors at Colorado Mountain College won’t be among those who benefit from the change.

That’s because CMC is prohibiting any adjunct from working more than 30 hours per week to avoid the obligation of providing its part-time labor force with insurance under President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

The school relies heavily on adjuncts — there are only 112 full-time faculty employed across its 11 college campuses — and administrators say insuring everyone who works more than 30 hours per week would be prohibitively expensive.

Instead, the school has limited adjuncts to teaching no more than nine credit hours per semester, which translates to about 27 hours per week assuming a ratio of two hours of preparation time for every hour spent in the classroom. Previously, adjuncts were limited to teaching 11 credit hours per semester, a workload of about 33 hours per week on average.

“That formula is so that we can maintain adjunct hours below that 30-hour threshold,” said Debbie Crawford, CMC’s public information officer. 

The change has so far affected only 27 adjunct professors who were scheduled to teach more than nine credit hours at the beginning of the spring 2014 semester.

“Of those 27, only six adjuncts had to have their teaching contracts adjusted back to the nine credits,” wrote CMC Vice President of Human Resources Jan Aspelund in an e-mail. “The remainder were scheduled to teach classes that did not run; those classes were scheduled but had insufficient enrollments for the class to be taught.”

Carrie Hauser, the incoming president of CMC who took over for interim president Charles R. Dassance last December, said she and other administrators have been thinking “thoughtfully and strategically” about how to comply with the requirements of the ACA, which kicks in for employers with more than 100 workers on Jan. 1, 2015.

“We have had some internal conversations on how to care for our part-time teaching corps,” Hauser said. “We are highly dependent on part-time faculty.”

Indeed, CMC retains its 600 adjunct professors at a relative bargain — salaries for full-time faculty absorb nearly twice as much of the school’s 2013-14 budget ($8.5 million) as part-time faculty salaries do ($4.4 million), despite the fact that there are six times more adjuncts on staff than full timers. CMC this year was set to spend 44 percent of its overall budget on instructional costs.

Among U.S. colleges, CMC is far from unique in capping adjunct hours to avoid a jump in healthcare costs: According to the education news website Inside Higher Ed, colleges across the country have been doing so in droves.

“I’ve heard that hundreds of colleges have done this but I’d say it’s very safe to say dozens,” Colleen Flaherty, a reporter for the website Inside Higher Ed who has written about how U.S. colleges are reacting to the ACA, wrote in an e-mail.

The attempts of American colleges to limit their exposure to the ACA have drawn the ire of teachers’ unions and faculty advocacy groups nationwide. The American Association of University Professors, which represents college faculty, posted the following strongly worded statement on its website last April in response to news of colleges capping adjunct hours:

“We have been dismayed by news reports of a handful of colleges and universities that have threatened to cut the course loads of part-time faculty members specifically in order to evade this provision of the law. Such actions are reprehensible, penalizing part-time faculty members both by depriving them access to affordable health care as intended by law and by reducing their income.”

The Aspen Daily News could not find a CMC adjunct professor willing to comment on the record for this story. One adjunct confirmed that their hours had been capped, but declined to speak on the record because they don’t want to endanger their chances of earning a full-time position at the college.

Not all colleges are choosing to cap adjunct hours in response to the Affordable Care Act, and some are choosing to accept the burden of higher healthcare costs instead.

Colorado Mesa University (CMU) in Grand Junction is one example. Barbara Case King, the school’s human resources director, said CMU is anticipating higher healthcare costs next year as a result of the ACA, but is planning to cover more adjunct professors rather than limiting their hours to make them ineligible for insurance under the law.

CMU is much less dependent on adjunct professors than CMC is; Case King said her school employs just 134 part-time faculty, compared to around 275 full-timers, meaning the cost of insuring more adjuncts at CMU will likely be lower than it would be at CMC.

The school also depends on a fairly limited talent pool compared to colleges in more populated areas, and Case King said that’s why administrators want to reward the adjunct professors who do qualify for insurance under the ACA.

“On the Western Slope, there just aren’t that many qualified people to draw from, and sometimes we have to ask people to work more during a given semester,” Case King said. “We are looking at what that’s going to cost us, and we do expect some increased costs as a result.”

nelson@nelsonharvey.com