Long-Awaited DOL Guidance Issued on Adjuncts’ Right to Unemployment Insurance

Good news for contingent faculty applying for unemployment insurance between academic terms (like now): DOL guidance clarifies to state agencies how to understand adjunct employment and our right to unemployment insurance under the law.

The DOL’s just-released Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (UIPL) 05-17 provides long-overdue guidance to address the new reality of contingent academic employment in higher education. New Faculty Majority and the NFM Foundation have been at the forefront of the effort to advocate for the issuance of this guidance. As we explained when we launched our Steve Street National Unemployment Compensation Initiative, this letter is a tool that adjunct faculty can use at the state level, both individually and collectively, to ensure that state agencies are correctly understanding and applying federal law. “The Department is issuing this guidance to remind states of the requirements,” the UIPL explains, as well as to clarify relevant definitions and to explain how contemporary situations might be addressed — a necessary step since the last guidance on this issue was released in 1986.

Highlights of the letter include: acknowledgment of the inconsistent application of the law in many states and clarification that unemployment cannot be denied if the adjunct’s “economic conditions” in the second term or year are “considerably less than those of the first academic year or term.” State agencies must investigate, and most significant, unemployment insurance cannot be denied as long as there exist contingencies “within the employer’s control.” Contingencies within the employer’s control can include decisions about funding in addition to standard practices such as assignments based on programming and administrative discretion.

In advocating for the issuance of this letter, NFM has built on the groundbreaking work of AFT union members and staff in California and Washington who helped win the landmark 1989 Cervisi legal decision and the Washington state statute; of Joe Berry, Helena Worthen, and Beverly Stewart, who wrote a 2008 guide for adjuncts applying for unemployment, and their colleague Frank Brooks; and activists like Jack Longmate and our late colleague Steve Street. Around the country adjuncts have worked to change their state laws to strengthen adjunct access to unemployment and we hope this guidance letter will be helpful to them in their state efforts.

NFM was proud to lead the effort to inform the DOL of the need for this updated letter after we uncovered the 1986 version and proposed requesting its update. We were grateful to collaborate with AFT, NEA, SEIU, AAUP, UAW, USW, and especially adjunct leaders and staff within the unions, on this project. The work we all did together was a wonderful example of what we can accomplish with mutual respect, determination, and solidarity.

We will provide more detailed discussion of the letter in the coming weeks.

https://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/corr_doc.cfm?DOCN=8999

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