If you become unemployed, you have the right to unemployment insurance (UI), based on availability for work and your prior income base. But this benefit is complicated for adjuncts at CUNY and other institutions of higher learning, since federal labor laws deny UI benefits to employees of educational institutions when they have “reasonable assurance” of re-employment after summers or other normal vacations from receiving unemployment benefits during these periods.
This regulation was set during the 1970s, before the proliferation of adjunct faculty hired on a contingent basis in higher education. The letter of appointment that CUNY sends to adjuncts specifies that the appointment is subject to change based on shifts in curriculum, funding, or staff – and adjuncts often lose classes before the start of the Fall semester. This level of uncertainty does not add up to a “reasonable assurance.” Thus, adjuncts often successfully apply for UI benefits if they are jobless during the summer months.
Adjuncts who have received letters of non-reappointment will have the clearest case for unemployment benefits, and will likely receive UI benefits without problem if they are not working.
If, on the other hand, you have received a letter of reappointment, but no promise of a definite class, either in writing or verbally, you may also apply for UI benefits. Be prepared to possibly be challenged, since CUNY maintains that the letters we receive are tantamount to reasonable assurance. It is critical to be meticulously accurate and complete about what you have, or have not, been told about the number of courses you are being offered for the Fall semester; this includes both written and oral communication.
Know Your Rights
If the New York Department of Labor denies your application, you may request a hearing within 30 days of the denial notice. You will receive a hearing date within a few weeks, and will then go before an administrative law judge to present the facts of your situation.
If you are granted UI benefits, CUNY has the right to request a hearing in order to challenge the decision. You can expect to start receiving your benefits in the meantime. If the decision to grant your UI benefits is overturned, your benefits will cease. But as long as you are found to have been complete and accurate in your application, you will not have to return UI benefit payments you have already received. While some adjuncts have been ordered to pay back money already received, this is unusual.
Note that if you do not apply at the end of the Spring semester and then you are, in fact, not given courses in the Fall, you cannot apply for UI benefits retroactively.
If you are in doubt about your rights, please contact an adjunct grievance counselor at the PSC at 212-354-1252, or the Workers Defense League at 212-627-1931. The WDL often represents adjuncts at UI hearings when they appeal a negative decision.
California and Washington State have modified their application of the federal labor regulations to clarify adjunct faculty’s right to UI benefits, in the same way as other seasonal workers. The PSC has developed legislation for a similar reform in New York State; while not yet passed, it has made progress in the Legislature. To help win passage of this bill, contact Adam Tripp, or Michael Batson to join local visits to legislators, or contact Amanda Magalhaes (212-354-1252) to join lobbying visits to Albany.