Teachers, colleges getting early lesson in Obamacare
By Eric Zorn
Chicago Tribune, March 5, 2013
They jokingly refer to themselves as "road scholars," the part-time, often itinerate employees who teach the majority of the classroom hours at community colleges.
Without their willingness to work for modest pay, tuition at these colleges would be out of reach for many of those looking to put a foot on the first rung of secondary education.
And now some of these instructors are finding themselves among the first to be ensnared by a requirement of Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act — as their employers are planning to cut their teaching hours to make sure they don't qualify for health care benefits under the new law.
Friday morning, adjunct professors and their supporters are planning a protest rally during an Illinois Council of Community College Presidents meeting in Lombard to urge leaders of the state's community colleges to "Keep the 'care' in the Affordable Care Act," as their promotional flier puts it.
Here's the problem: Starting next year, Obamacare will require companies that employ more than 50 full-time workers to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 or more hours a week, or else pay a fine.
But what's an "hour" for a college teacher? Depending on the subject matter, level of interaction with students and other factors, one hour in the classroom can require two, three or more hours of preparation, grading, conferences and so on.
"How do we account for all that time? How do we measure it?" asks David Baime, senior vice president for governmental relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, which represents 1,167 institutions nationwide. "With almost 70 percent of our (classroom) credits now taught by adjuncts, the colleges are extremely concerned about how the law will be interpreted and the extra costs they might get hit with."
The Internal Revenue Service will hold a public hearing April 23 in Washington on this issue to attempt to sort out the concerns of the colleges and give them better guidance. But many schools are already planning out the 2013-14 school year, and some are erring on the side of caution, pre-emptively altering schedules and throwing some teachers into a panic.
Oakton Community College, with campuses in Des Plaines and Skokie, last month announced it would be cutting the hours of certain particularly active adjunct teachers starting this summer in order to make sure they won't qualify as full-time employees under the Obamacare threshold when it kicks in.
Oakton's marketing manager Janet Spector Bishop estimates 50 or fewer of the roughly 400 adjunct faculty members will lose hours when the somewhat complicated formula is applied.
Oakton's Adjunct Faculty Association union President Barbara Dayton puts the number at 85.
Whichever number is correct, here's the problem these teachers face: They're already at the low end of the pay scale — a typical adjunct teaching two classes that meet four hours a week might make $8,000 for a semester, with no job benefits — and now they're being told they're going to make even less money right when the law will compel them to buy insurance.
"It's a double whammy," said Bill Silver, an Illinois Education Association union representative who's helping organize Friday's rally. "They'll be earning 30 to 70 percent less money, then being told to go buy their (health) insurance on the exchanges."
Students, he said, will see either fewer class offerings or classes being taught by less experienced part-timers.
Ideally, Silver said, all community colleges would offer health care benefits for their part-timers.
An administrative memo at Oakton said the additional costs associated with Obamacare stood to be "several million dollars" depending on how the law is ultimately applied. And this, of course, could result in higher tuitions, larger class sizes or both.
Either way, it looks like students lose.
And this is probably just the first example of the many similar issues that will arise as the big, clumsy law tries to blend the private, employer-provided insurance model with the idea of near-universal medical coverage.
Yet another lesson in Single-payer 101.
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