Adjunct lecturer Alice Zinnes helps a student in her design class at City Tech. Part-timers teach half of all CUNY’s classes.
What is the campaign for adjunct health insurance about?
The campaign is about preventing a core part of the CUNY workforce from losing an essential benefit. CUNY depends on adjunct labor, yet fails to fulfill the employer’s basic responsibility of providing health insurance for eligible adjuncts. As CUNY has expanded its reliance on adjunct faculty, it has covered less and less of the cost of adjuncts’ health insurance. Now the portion covered by CUNY is only 20%.
CUNY must fulfill its responsibility as an employer: the University cannot run on adjunct labor and then pretend that the adjunct labor force does not exist. To be effective teachers, all faculty need decent medical care. The campaign for adjunct health insurance is ultimately about what kind of employer CUNY is – and what kind of university.
Why did the Welfare Fund trustees decide that adjunct health insurance would be discontinued unless an alternative funding source is found by August 2012?
Adjunct health insurance was won in 1986 as part of the union contract; since then it has been provided through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and funded by CUNY. But CUNY’s funding falls dramatically short of the actual cost. In every round of contract negotiations since the present leadership took office, the PSC has demanded that eligible adjuncts receive health insurance from the same source as full-timers to put adjunct health coverage on a more secure foundation. But for ten years, CUNY has refused to adjust the contract to match the reality of its use of adjunct labor or engage seriously with the PSC to seek alternative ways to provide adjunct health insurance.
As the University has continued to expand its reliance on adjunct labor, the number of adjuncts eligible for health insurance has skyrocketed. The cost of coverage has increased even faster. The total cost of the benefit is now 400% of its cost in 2002, but CUNY’s annual contribution has remained unchanged.
When the funding gap was smaller, the Welfare Fund was able to manage it through a combination of administrative efficiencies, restructuring adjunct health insurance and other benefits, and drawing on the Welfare Fund’s reserves. But after sharp increases in recent years, the funding gap is now too large to close with stopgap measures. If no changes are made, within the next two years the deficit created by CUNY’s underfunding of adjunct health insurance will be larger than the Welfare Fund’s entire reserve. The Trustees concluded they had no alternative, and acted on their fiduciary responsibility in a resolution adopted on July 25. (See this article, by a Fund trustee.)
Why can’t the Welfare Fund solve the problem by spreading more of the cost among all participants rather than causing the lowest-paid employees to lose health insurance?
Because the shortfall in CUNY’s funding for adjunct health insurance is now so large that no amount of benefit-cutting, up to and including eliminating all other benefits for full-timers and retirees, would solve the problem. Even if every other benefit were cut, within six fiscal years the projected cost of adjunct health insurance would be larger than the entire current income of the Welfare Fund – and adjuncts would still not be fully covered. Trying to subsidize CUNY’s refusal to meet its basic responsibility as an employer would devastate all other benefits and still fail to secure adjunct health coverage. The problem is structural, and a structural solution is required.
What do you mean by a “structural solution”?
A structural solution would be a plan for adjunct health insurance that increases funding as the number of eligible participants or the cost of the insurance rises. The ultimate structural solution to the issue, of course, would be to end CUNY’s reliance on underpaid part-time labor and achieve enough public funding for a full-time faculty workforce. Within the current funding basis for CUNY, however, the solution would be simply for the employer to provide health insurance for eligible adjuncts on the same basis that health insurance is provided for full-timers, through the New York City Health Benefits Program. That’s what’s done for other New York City employees, and what’s done at SUNY. City employees who work half-time or more receive the same health insurance as employees who work full-time, and SUNY adjuncts who meet eligibility requirements very similar to ours receive the same health insurance as SUNY full-time faculty and staff. A similar plan should be implemented at CUNY.
How many adjuncts work at CUNY, and are they all eligible for health insurance?
Relatively few are eligible. In the Spring 2011 semester CUNY employed 13,198 teaching and non-teaching adjuncts. Only 13% (or 1,721) received adjunct health insurance through the Welfare Fund. Those who receive health insurance are often long-term adjuncts whose entire income derives from teaching at CUNY and who have taught at the University for many years.
The majority of adjuncts, however, do not qualify for coverage; they have full-time jobs elsewhere, or are retirees or graduate employees – usually with access to other sources of health insurance. To be eligible for health insurance through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund, an adjunct must have taught at CUNY for at least two consecutive semesters and teach at least six hours in the third semester. Further, adjuncts must maintain at least a six-hour load per semester to remain eligible and may not be covered by other primary health insurance. (A small number of non-teaching adjuncts are also eligible, see the contract’s Article 26.6.) Despite these stringent eligibility rules and a one-year waiting period, CUNY’s increasing use of adjunct faculty means that the number receiving health insurance has increased by 61% since 2002.
What should I do if I am an adjunct currently receiving health insurance?
Above all, you should join the campaign to demand that CUNY take responsibility for providing this benefit. Health insurance is critical for everyone, and for some it is a matter of life and death. The union leadership will ask the entire PSC membership to fight with you.
The union has a year to succeed in moving CUNY to take responsibility, and we believe we can do it. But health insurance is a matter of survival, and you are likely to have an immediate need for information. The PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund staff will be able to help you with questions such as what would happen if health insurance were discontinued, what a severely reduced benefit would look like, or other questions. Call the Welfare Fund at 212-354-5230 or visit the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund website.
Why don’t adjuncts receive health insurance through the same plan as full-time faculty and staff?
Good question. In the 1980s, through negotiations, City employees who worked half-time or more started receiving the same health insurance coverage as full-time employees. If the full-time workweek was 40 hours, an employee had to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify. The agreement did not include adjuncts at CUNY. Shortly after this agreement was reached, and under intense pressure from organized adjuncts at CUNY, the University and the PSC agreed in 1986 to purchase health insurance for eligible adjuncts through the Welfare Fund with funding from CUNY.
Why is the gap between the funding CUNY provides and the cost of adjunct health insurance so large?
Because CUNY has in the past refused to work with the PSC to seek alternative forms of providing adjunct health insurance or change its contractual obligation to reflect the University’s growing use of adjuncts and the benefit’s actual cost. In every round of contract negotiations since the present leadership took office, the PSC has demanded that eligible adjuncts receive health insurance from the same source as full-timers. The PSC won a small increase specifically for funding adjunct health insurance in 2002, but since then CUNY’s funding for adjunct health insurance has remained unchanged – despite huge increases in both the number of eligible adjuncts and the cost of insurance. In subsequent years, the PSC and CUNY negotiated additional lump-sum and recurring increases to bolster the Fund’s general revenue, but these could not cover the structural deficit caused by the imbalance in basic funding.
Between July 2002 and July 2011, the number of adjuncts in the plan increased from 1,067 to 1,721, and the per-person annual cost went from $3,264 to $8,061. CUNY’s contribution now covers only 20% of the total cost.
CUNY officials have said that the PSC should work with CUNY on a solution; is the union willing to do so?
Absolutely. For 11 years, the PSC leadership has tried to do just that. In every round of contract negotiations since 2000, CUNY has refused union proposals for a structural solution. As the approaching crisis for the Welfare Fund became apparent, the union leadership briefed the CUNY administration and urged the University to act. The PSC leadership believes the issue of adjunct health insurance can be resolved, and we are eager to work with CUNY to achieve a solution. In recent years the PSC and CUNY have solved many difficult issues through working together; the union stands ready to do so again.
What exactly is the Welfare Fund?
The PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund is a trust established under New York State Law to provide supplemental health benefits at CUNY. Supplemental health benefits are those that supplement basic health insurance: prescription drugs, dental care, optical care, hearing aids and more. Since 1986, the Welfare Fund has also been responsible for providing health insurance to eligible adjuncts using funds provided by CUNY. It is highly unusual for a welfare fund to cover basic health insurance, as ours does for adjuncts. The PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund receives its income from the employer, CUNY, and its membership includes CUNY management employees as well as faculty and staff represented by the PSC. The Welfare Fund trustees, who have fiduciary responsibility for the Fund, decide on expenditures in conformance with the Fund’s Summary Plan Description, which may be modified periodically. The Welfare Fund’s website (psccunywf.org) has more information.
Does any of the income of the Welfare Fund come from union dues?
No. Union dues pay for union activities: filing grievances, negotiating the contract, fighting for increased CUNY funding, organizing contract campaigns, advocating for legislation beneficial to PSC members, etc. The Welfare Fund is funded through contributions by CUNY under terms negotiated in the contract.
Why did the Welfare Fund spend resources on adjuncts when CUNY does not provide full funding for their health insurance?
Because it’s the right thing to do. We are all part of one workplace, one university. The Welfare Fund operates on the premise that the Fund’s income is negotiated on our collective behalf and is for our collective use. That’s the premise of all shared health funds. Some of us need more expenditure by the Welfare Fund one year, some another. A member may use almost no prescription drugs for 20 years, and then in a single year need thousands of dollars of drug therapy. The Welfare Fund is there to cover that cost.
The Welfare Fund has operated the same way with adjunct health insurance costs. As the deficit created by CUNY’s underfunding began to grow, the Fund treated it as a shared expense; the Welfare Fund negotiated reductions in the cost of adjunct health insurance itself, further reduced its already low administrative costs, and spread a portion of the cost among the 34,000 participants eligible for Welfare Fund benefits.
The Fund was also able to draw on increased contributions negotiated for all City welfare funds by the Municipal Labor Committee, on increases negotiated by the PSC with CUNY in 2004 and 2006, and on a $30-million reserve negotiated by the PSC and CUNY in 2006. But such measures are no longer enough: the operating deficit caused by CUNY’s underfunding of adjunct health insurance has now grown so large that it threatens to overwhelm the entire Welfare Fund budget.
The PSC has been pressing this issue for years; is there any reason to hope that it can be solved now?
Yes, though these are obviously difficult times in which to negotiate. One important change is that after extensive discussions initiated by PSC President Barbara Bowen, CUNY management representatives have acknowledged the importance of the issue. The PSC also has a track record of working with CUNY management to gain equitable health insurance. In 2008, in a side agreement to the contract, CUNY and the PSC established that doctoral students at the CUNY Graduate Center would be eligible for health insurance on the same basis as doctoral students at SUNY. The PSC is committed to using every resource at its disposal to reach a comparable agreement for adjuncts, but CUNY must also take an active role in reaching a solution. The strength of the whole union will be needed to win this; we will need the voices of tenured and untenured, faculty and staff, full-time and part-time together.
I want to be part of this campaign! It’s a life-and-death issue for adjuncts, and it goes right to the heart of what kind of university CUNY is. What can I do?
Great! We need every member of the University community to participate. Right now, send a message to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and Board Chairperson Benno Schmidt demanding that CUNY fulfill its basic responsibility to its workforce. Then, join the hundreds of your colleagues who have already signed a petition that can be presented publicly, with the same message.
Most important, make a commitment to attend a demonstration for adjunct health insurance at the CUNY Board of Trustees’ first meeting of the academic year: Monday, September 26, at 4:00 at Baruch College. The Trustees need to hear that making CUNY take responsibility for adjunct health insurance is a priority for the University’s whole faculty and staff. More demonstrations and actions will follow, escalating if needed, to press for a solution.
If you want to play a part in shaping the campaign, contact PSC organizer Brian Graf at [email protected]. No issue is more fundamental than the right to health care, and this may be one of the most important campaigns the union has ever waged. We need everyone who cares about justice, who cares about what the University stands for, to get involved.
RELATED COVERAGE: Adjunct Health Care: A Campaign We Can Win, The Adjunct Health Care Crisis: A Welfare Fund Trustee’s Perspective, Save Adjunct Health Care, Views on the Crisis: PSC Members Speak Out and What You Can Do