In this special section of our True Stories feature, we’ll be publishing 300-500 word pieces from the adjuncts on the subject of applying for unemployment compensation and their experiences.
Be sure to look for more True Stories on Twitter under #PrecariTales.
Anonymous Adjunct, Liberal Arts College
What Adjuncts Should Know About Unemployment Benefits
Making ends meet in the summer is difficult if you’re an adjunct, in part, because most of us don’t get paid from June through August. In 2014. As a social sciences adjunct at a small liberal arts college, I earned less than $15,000 for the whole year. With no teaching work lined up for the summer, I had to consider a range of options for earning money to cover my rent, utilities, and food and other basic needs.
I wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible to cover all of my costs, so I did some freelance copy editing and website design. I also listed my apartment on Airbnb.com and similar sites, allowing strangers to enjoy my home as a vacation rental while I visited my family for a month. I also learned to cook very inexpensive meals and stretch the dollar as much as possible on everything from laundry detergent to toilet paper.
Even with all of these efforts, however, I still found it difficult to cover my basic costs for the summer, so I did something I thought I would never do: I filed for unemployment benefits.
I was conflicted about doing this. I grew up in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps household, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was something shameful about applying for unemployment. But I had bills to pay, and I genuinely wanted to work. There just wasn’t any work available at my university during the summer.
After writing and rewriting the budget several times over, I discovered that I needed extra income if I was going to avoid getting into credit card debt. That’s when I decided that I had to apply for unemployment benefits.
If you find yourself in a similar situation without work this summer, here’s what you should know about filing unemployment:
Eligibility: Educators are eligible for unemployment benefits in most states, provided—and these are crucial—that your employer has a) not offered you summer work, and b) you are technically between contracts. If you have a verbal agreement that you’ll be renewed for the next academic year but haven’t yet received a written contract, you may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
In deciding whether to approve your benefits, a case worker will check with your employer to see if you were offered summer employment and whether you have received a contract for the next academic year. In my case, I was not offered summer employment, and my university did not send me a written contract until August 1st. Therefore, I was eligible for unemployment from June 1st (the first week that I was considered to be unemployed) until I received the contract in August.
When you should file: You should file your unemployment benefits in the state where you work one week before the end of your employment period as stated on your contract. However, you can apply in most states within a period of one year after your employment ends.
Requirements to receive unemployment: Most state unemployment offices require you to do several things to receive a check, including searching and applying for other jobs and visiting a career center. If you are considering a Post-Ac or Alt-Ac career, this process can be quite helpful.
How you will be paid: If your application is approved by an unemployment benefits case worker, you will receive a weekly payment via check or direct deposit that is based on the salary that you earned in your previous year of employment. (It’s usually about half of what you earned per week while you were working.) Remember that this is considered taxable income, and you can opt to pay taxes on it as it is disbursed or wait until the end of the tax year.
Timeframe for receiving benefits: Because unemployment benefits are operated by the state, they tend to encounter the usual bureaucratic obstacles. The timeframe for getting your benefits approved may take as long as eight weeks, and you’ll need to call them on a weekly basis to try to move the process along.
If you’re thinking about filing for unemployment benefits, look at your state’s website or stop by a career center to get started. In going through the process, I learned valuable information about Post-Ac and Alt-Ac careers. I used some of the money to pay a career coach to help me with my job documents and try to convince my university to hire me full time.
I also realized this: there is nothing shameful about filing for unemployment benefits.
Adjuncts work hard for their salaries and often do pro bono work for their students and employers during the summer, such as course development or advising. Until universities recognize adjuncts’ value by adequately compensating them for their work, we will have to look for other ways to make ends meet. While unemployment benefits treat the symptoms of exploitative adjunct labor, rather than the causes, it can at the very least offer some financial security during the summer months.
Brianne Bolin, Managing Director, PrecariCorps
Filing Unemployment for #AdjunctSummer:
The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire
Two weeks after filing for unemployment, I received it in my mailbox—a finely-wrought series of questions that seem to function as trip wires and booby traps designed to deny academics unemployment but which actually serve to help the state agency determine whether the reasonable assurance clause in federal law is applicable or not, as President of New Faculty Majority (NFM) Maria Maisto explained. The Illinois Academic Personnel Questionnaire was written with the K-12 instructor in mind, which is evident in question sequences about substitute teaching, and reveals a clear lack of knowledge about how higher education employment functions in the post-NAWD economy, evident in phrases like paid sabbatical.
You should know two things: 1) NFM, AFT, NEA, and SEIU have been in conversations with the Department of Labor to issue new guidance to state agencies about the inapplicability of a key clause in federal law to the situation of contingent faculty, and 2) We should share all unemployment information and stories with NFM so they can present them as further evidence to the DOL and to state agencies of the ways in which contingent faculty are being denied their right to unemployment compensation.
Before the series of questions begins, the state warns us that we are ineligible if we are in a break between terms/years or have “reasonable assurance” that we will work next term/year, but neither apply. We aren’t often given summer classes, although our schools are still in session, so we aren’t in fact in a break between terms. Due to the precarious nature of our jobs and “contracts,” a word that must always be put in quotes if we use it at all, we never have “reasonable assurance” of work.
So, what are the questions, and how should we answer them so the state can understand this as we do?
First, it asks basics like name of employer and dates of employment.
Second: Did your employment end with the end of an academic year or term, or at the start of a vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. In my case, the answer is yes, as my assignment was complete after May 15th, and I was not given any summer classes.
Third: What is the reason for your unemployment? (Select One):
☐Customary vacation period
☐Other:____________ (Please explain)
As none of the above euphemisms describe a typical #AdjunctSummer and the reasons behind it, “Other” is the only appropriate answer. My explanation was simple: although my school has a summer term, I was not offered any courses or additional work.
Maisto gave me this advice: “You can make the case that the next academic term is the summer and that you have no assignment for the summer term. Some people have been successful with this argument, especially since more and more schools are offering more and more summer classes. If they come back with a claim that summer is not an academic term, then the next move is to say that even if the next term is fall, you do not have reasonable assurance. As a contingent faculty member, by definition, you do not have reasonable assurance for any future work.”
The next question that requires closer attention has to do with our “contracts” for fall semester: Do you have written, verbal or implied agreement to work for an academic institution in the next academic year, term or the period immediately following the vacation period or holiday recess? Yes/No. Maisto advises us to answer No: “Be ready to supply any documentation from your employment documents that has the inevitable language that asserts the institution’s ‘right’ to rescind the course assignment for any reason including funding and enrollment.” At Columbia College Chicago, this document is called an Adjunct Faculty Teaching Assignment Form, and it includes four sentences that admit to the precarity of our work:
As always the final decision of who teaches each course is the sole prerogative of the department chair. No teaching assignment can be considered final until student registration is completed [underlining in the original]. In the event that one or all of the classes listed below are cancelled, you will receive the $250 cancellation fee per course as defined in the PFAC [Part-Time Faculty Union at Columbia] agreement. In the event your teaching assignment changes during the semester, your department will complete a teaching re-assignment form, send a copy to the Provost’s Office, and give you a copy for your records.
Whatever the rationale, be it budgetary restrictions, underenrollment, your department or administration failing to follow your union’s collective bargaining agreement, a full-time or tenure-track instructor’s course not filling, or a graduate student needing a course for practicum, it’s more likely that we won’t have the same schedule we were originally offered when the semester begins. Keep in mind the adjunct truth that it’s more likely for us to lose classes than to maintain them. We all have stories about that, even those of us with a union. That’s what unfair labor practices (ULPs) are for.
So when you answer the next yes/no question, Do you have reason to believe that you will be rehired to work for the next academic year or term?, answer No. Maisto advises us to be prepared to provide evidence of our own or other adjuncts’ courses being withdrawn after the initial offer, so save those emails, talk to your colleagues and unions if you have them, collect documentation, and be ready to defend your right to stable, predictable employment.