Some CMC teachers cry foul over new Obamacare-related cap on hours

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

CMC president says cap meant to avert new health care costs may be temporary

Some part-time faculty at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) say their ability to earn a living as teachers has been harmed by a new cap on working hours recently instituted by school administrators in response to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The cap, which reduced the maximum teaching load for part-time professors from 11 credit hours per semester to nine, took effect in July of last year as CMC administrators were struggling to plan for the implementation of the ACA, the health care law colloquially known as Obamacare.

Under the law, beginning in January 2015 any employer with more than 100 workers will have to provide health insurance to anyone who works more than 30 hours per week on average. In response, CMC has joined many community colleges across the country by capping part-time teaching loads to fall below that 30-hour threshold, averting an unbudgeted increase in faculty health care costs next year.

Yet some adjunct teachers — there are more than 600 at CMC, compared to around 112 full-time faculty — say the school’s pre-emptive decision to skirt Obamacare requirements has harmed their earning potential, while also compromising their ability to respond to student needs and offer extra help outside of class.

“I used to teach three four-credit classes, and now I teach two,” said one science teacher, who didn’t want her name or home campus printed because she feared that it could harm her chance of landing a full time job with benefits at CMC. “The only way that people really make it [as adjuncts] is by stacking courses, by having multiple courses.”

Since the Obamacare-related cap went into effect, the science teacher said she’s had to work more at a separate part-time job to make up for the decline in her teaching hours, and has not been able to provide the online, out-of-class office hours to her students that she previously did.

“CMC makes this big deal that we are supposed to be there for the students, and we are just not,” she said, referencing the concern that she will be working more at other jobs and less available for office hours. “Students have less access to their professors because of this cap.”

Another English teacher who also wished to remain anonymous said she frequently taught 11 credit hours per semester before the new cap on hours was put in place, but now teaches only nine. 

“I have taught 11 credits in the past, and am in demand enough that I could teach more if allowed,” the English teacher wrote in an email. “The whole point of Obamacare was to help people like me. Instead of following the intent of the law, [CMC administrators] circumvented the law.”

Yet CMC’s new cap on part-time teaching hours may only be temporary. In an email to faculty across the school’s 11 Rocky Mountain campuses last week, CMC President Dr. Carrie Hauser wrote that CMC is still analyzing the financial impact of insuring part-time faculty under the ACA starting next year, and may lift the cap for some.

“I want to assure you that we have not made rigid, long-term decisions concerning total compensation for part-time instructors,” Hauser wrote. “Like most community colleges throughout the nation, we are taking a very close look at the implications of recent changes to employment and health care-related policies. We are trying to be responsive to the needs of our employees and students while balancing the fiscal limitations of our institution.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Hauser said it is possible that some part-time CMC teachers will be permitted to teach more than 30 hours per week next year, allowing them to qualify for health insurance.

“It may well be that we have some part-time staff and faculty that should be eligible for some benefits,” Hauser said, noting that the school recently hired the New Hampshire educational consulting firm Stevens Consulting to analyze its hiring policies and employee benefits structure, including the pending impact of the ACA.

“Like a lot of folks out there, we’re looking for counsel to be sure that we’re doing this in an employee-centric way,” Hauser said. “What we need to understand better is who of our part-time employment corps are interested [in health insurance]. We have a lot of folks that are retired, or they work other jobs. Some of them don’t need benefits, they are happy with the benefits they already have.”

Indeed, many CMC adjuncts only teach one or two courses per semester, earning most of their income through other employment. The adjunct population most affected by the Obamacare-related cap appears to be those for whom teaching is a principal occupation, many of whom were teaching around 11 credit hours before the cap was put in place and are ultimately seeking a full-time job at the college. 

“I have been looking for a faculty job for five years,” wrote the anonymous English teacher. “Faculty starting pay is $60,000 per year plus benefits (10 month contract). Adjuncts make $2,160 per 3-credit class per semester. As it is contract work, depending on the workload of the class, an adjunct makes anywhere from $21/hr (CMC claims this) to $4-$12/hr (my average as an English teacher).”

Some adjunct faculty were more sympathetic to CMC’s initial response to the ACA, including Leadville-based ski area management instructor Curt Bender, who spent 28 years as a full-time professor at the college before cutting back and becoming an adjunct six years ago.

“The nine credit hour limitation was kind of a shock, but when I look at that from an administrative standpoint, whoever was in charge was probably looking at having to cover an additional 100 to 150 employees next year, and that would have been a sizeable unbudgeted impact,” Bender said. “They probably did what was prudent at the time.”

Bender noted that throughout his more than three decades at CMC, the college has frequently ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus, which administrators have sometimes redistributed to teachers for new equipment or teaching-related expenses.

“I’ve gotten moneys before from the surplus,” Bender said. “If indeed the college is run so well that they end up with surpluses, could they find the financial wherewithal to give health insurance to the few adjuncts who need it?”

The Aspen Daily News submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to CMC for data on what it would cost the college to insure the number of part-time faculty who have taught more than nine credit hours per semester on average over the last four years. CMC had not fulfilled that request by press time, but is expected to do so later this week.

New teaching-hours cap compounds discontent for some CMC adjuncts

For some adjunct faculty at CMC, the recent Obamacare-related cap on teaching loads has contributed to a pre-existing sense of dissatisfaction over pay, prestige, campus participation and other issues.

CMC relies overwhelmingly on adjuncts — they taught 61 percent of the credit hours offered at the college last year. Yet the frustrations felt by some were brought to light in a college-wide report released in June 2013 called the “Gap Analysis,” prepared by education consultant Deborah Abbott Pain of Breckenridge.

In her analysis, Pain inventoried all of CMC’s educational and administrative programs seeking ways to improve upon them. The process included interviews with numerous members of the college’s adjunct teaching corps.

“There is a high level of frustration among many adjuncts, a feeling echoed at higher education institutions across the country,” reads the report. “These issues can be generally incorporated into five main areas; recognition, respect, prestige, inclusion and compensation.”

Pain wrote that some adjunct faculty at CMC are frustrated by what they view as low rates of pay, and feel un-appreciated compared to full time faculty and excluded from some aspects of campus decision-making.

Yet because of their part-time status, engaging adjuncts in campus life can be difficult.

     Curt Bender, who has taught ski area management at CMC’s Leadville campus for more than 30 years, served as an adjunct representative to the CMC Faculty Senate during the 2010-11 academic year. The Faculty Senate advises college administration on compensation, hiring and other academic issues.

During his time in the Senate, Bender said, he tried to increase adjunct participation by helping establish an adjunct representative at each of the school’s 12 campuses who reported directly to him, and by urging CMC administration to compare adjunct pay with that enjoyed by part-time teachers at comparable institutions. (An analysis found that at anywhere between $2,100 and $2,700 per three-credit class, compensation for adjuncts at CMC is competitive with the pay offered at other Colorado community colleges).

Bender even contemplated spearheading the creation of a labor union for CMC adjunct faculty, but organizing adjuncts — many of whom work full time jobs in addition to their teaching loads — proved tough.

“The problem with adjuncts is that almost all of your adjuncts actually have full time jobs or are retired, and they teach their one class and their two classes, and they’re done,” Bender said. “I tried to host three or four meetings with my adjuncts just here in Leadville, and three or four people showed up, even though I offered a free lunch!”