NFM launched this national campaign in 2009 to help eligible adjunct and contingent college and university faculty obtain unemployment compensation in between academic terms. In addition to providing practical assistance to faculty members who are eligible for this benefit, the campaign is part of our broader strategy to reform postsecondary academic employment through education, advocacy, legislation and litigation. By supporting contingent faculty as they apply and collecting statistics on patterns of activity around unemployment claims, we expect to be able to lobby more effectively to change the problematic “reasonable assurance of re-employment” clause in federal unemployment law-the clause that has been invoked (and contested) when denials have occurred.
We are pleased to have the support of the three major faculty unions on this effort and look forward to working with them on it. As the only national organization dedicated exclusively to advocating for adjunct and contingent faculty, NFM is eager to build on the groundbreaking efforts of activists like Joe Berry, Beverly Stewart, Helena Worthen, Frank Brooks, Jonathan Karpf and the countless others within and outside of unions who have worked to secure this basic right for adjunct and contingent faculty.
When the NFM Board voted to take this on as its first major national initiative, we outlined the following as the rationale:
1. This campaign is an effort to help our most vulnerable constituents to gain access to resources that they need and to which they are entitled. Many adjunct faculty members do not know that they can apply for UI in between terms, or are discouraged from filing. This initiative is meant to provide contingent faculty with support and solidarity as they claim this basic right. In other words, we will not be advocating for a brand new right but rather a right that already exists; even though it is inconsistently applied, there is legal precedent for it. Unemployment insurance is sometimes denied to part-time faculty but can be awarded to individuals who prevail in their appeals of denial. It is regularly awarded in California, where the Cervisi decision was decided by the CA Court of Appeals in 1989.
2. Unemployment insurance is an issue that is timely and will be a good way to introduce the subject of contingent faculty rights to a broader audience, which is one of our primary goals. We hope this initiative will show our good faith, since we cannot be faulted for working to make institutions comply with existing law or for working to clarify and update a very vague and problematic legal standard. We want to expose problematic or illegal practices; the denials that sometimes occur outside of California, for example, are often deliberately pursued by colleges and universities who hire firms for the purpose of contesting UI applications. Institutions obviously stand to gain from not having to pay out hundreds of claims. (The New York Times recently reported on such firms.)
However, institutions that obstruct claims are trying to have it both ways: they want all of the “benefits” of contingent employment without the responsibilities. Explaining the reasoning and methods involved in the decisions of colleges and universities to fight unemployment insurance for contingent faculty will begin to expose the fundamental problems and contradictions inherent in institutional policies of contingent faculty employment. In short, the disingenuousness of higher ed on this issue is evident in the fact that many institutions have it specifically written into their rules that contingent faculty DON’T have reasonable assurance of continued employment, while at the same time obstructing claims by asserting that they DO have reasonable assurance. We believe that a concerted national effort at both the state and federal levels will lead to the clarification or elimination of the phrase and affirm this right more clearly.
3. A vast increase in UI applications puts pressure on institutions to pay some of the actual costs of contingency and to obey the law rather than to circumvent it. Engagement with institutions in the light of day can only help our cause.
4. A national campaign will help facilitate efforts to address the issue at both the state and federal levels and help lay the foundation for future efforts on equally important issues. The phrase “reasonable assurance of re-employment” is an outdated standard found in federal unemployment law that was intended to prevent teachers with continuing contracts, which contingent faculty generally do not have, from “double dipping” during their breaks.
Remember: NFM’s larger goal is to improve higher education by establishing regular terms of employment and a living wage for all faculty. When colleges and universities are well managed, they will hire the majority of faculty on a regular basis. We offer this choice: employ us on annual contracts, not conditionally and per semester, or pay us unemployment benefits when we are separated from work. When enough of us have stood up and taken the initiative to claim UI, it will be clear that the principled choice is also the practical one – equitable employment in American colleges and universities.