Frequently Asked Questions: Adjunct Health Insurance Campaign

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What is the campaign for adjunct health insurance about?
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 adjuncts, it has covered less and less of the cost of adjuncts’ health insurance. Now the portion covered by CUNY is only 20%. This is a campaign to demand that CUNY fulfill its responsibility as an employer: the University cannot run on adjunct labor and then pretend that the adjunct labor force does not exist. The campaign 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?
Because for ten years CUNY refused to engage seriously with the PSC to seek alternative forms of providing adjunct health insurance or to increase its contribution to a level that would cover 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. Under the contract, adjunct health insurance is provided through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and is funded by CUNY. But CUNY’s funding falls dramatically short of the actual cost. The University has continued to expand its reliance on adjunct labor, and the number of adjuncts eligible for health insurance has skyrocketed. The cost of the insurance itself has increased even more rapidly. The result is that CUNY’s funding now covers only 20% of the benefit’s cost. Since 2002, CUNY’s contribution to the Welfare Fund for adjunct health insurance has remained unchanged, yet the total cost of the benefit is now 400% of its 2002 cost. 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. Within the next two years, if no changes are made, the deficit created by the underfunding of adjunct health insurance will be larger than the Welfare Fund’s entire reserve. Restructuring benefits and other stop-gap measures will no longer work. The Trustees had a fiduciary responsibility to act; they passed a resolution on the issue on July 25.

Why can’t the Welfare Fund solve the problem by spreading more of the cost among all Welfare Fund 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. Such concessions would only subsidize CUNY in its refusal to provide adequate funding for basic health insurance for a central part of the University workforce. 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. The problem is structural and has now reached a size at which it can no longer be solved by stop-gap measures. A structural solution must be achieved.

What do you mean by a “structural solution”?
A structural solution would be a plan for adjunct health insurance that automatically increases funding as the number of eligible participants and the cost of the insurance increases. 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 semester of 2011, the most recent for which we have figures, 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 health insurance through the Welfare Fund; 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 must be teaching at least six hours in the third semester. Further, adjuncts must maintain at least a six-hour load per semester to remain eligible and must not be covered by other primary health insurance. (A small number of non-teaching adjuncts are also eligible; Article 26.6 of the contract spells out the requirements.) Despite these stringent eligibility rules and one-year waiting period, CUNY’s increasing use of adjuncts has allowed many more adjuncts to become eligible for coverage; the number receiving health insurance has increased by 61% just 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. In a sense, you are fighting for your life, and 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 such questions as what would happen if health insurance were discontinued, what a severely reduced benefit would look like, what options and alternatives adjuncts might have, and other questions. Call the Welfare Fund at 212-354-5230 or visit the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund website.

Is health insurance for adjuncts contractual?
Yes. Eligibility criteria, the right to receive adjunct health insurance for those who meet the criteria, and CUNY’s funding for adjunct health insurance to the Welfare Fund were established in 1986 through collective bargaining and are covered in Article 26.6 of the contract. Since 1986, modest changes have been made in contractual eligibility and funding. The contract also gives the Welfare Fund Trustees the authority to determine the scope of benefits.

Do full-time faculty get their health insurance through the Welfare Fund?
No. Full-time faculty and staff at CUNY receive their basic health insurance through the New York City Health Benefits Program under the NYC Office of Labor Relations. Health insurance for full-time City employees predates collective bargaining in New York City, but now City employee unions negotiate collectively (through the Municipal Labor Committee) with the City about the level of coverage and its cost. Even after the senior colleges moved under State jurisdiction in the 1970s, full-time CUNY employees continued to be covered for health insurance under the New York City Health Benefits Program.

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 a week hours 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 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 to increase its contribution to the required level. 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 funding for adjunct health insurance. Between July 2002 and July 2011, the number of adjuncts in the plan increased from 1,067 to 1,721, and the annual cost per person went from $3,264 to $8,118. The current total cost is 400% of the cost in 2002. CUNY’s contribution now covers only 20% of the total.

Is CUNY’s decision not to put additional funding into adjunct health insurance due to a reduced reliance on adjunct teaching?
No. Contrary to CUNY’s stated goal of increasing the full-time faculty instruction to 70%, CUNY has relied more and more on adjuncts for instruction. According to CUNY’s statistics, both the number of adjuncts employed and the amount of hours they teach has increased substantially over time. In Fall 2000, the City University Personnel System (CUPS) listed 6,258 individuals employed as teaching adjuncts. By Spring 2011, CUNY First reports that number increased by 83% to 11,450. Looked at another way, the CUNY-wide percentage of full-time instructional hours taught by full-time faculty fell from 51.2% in Fall 2005 to 48.5% in Fall 2009. And, the amount of instruction delivered by adjuncts dramatically increased, rising from 3,432 full-time equivalent adjuncts in Fall 2005 to 5,006 full-time equivalent adjuncts in Fall 2009, a 46% increase. (CUNY Performance Management Report, July 22, 2010)

CUNY officials have said that the PSC should work with CUNY on a solution; is the union willing to do that?
Absolutely. For eleven 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 them to act. The PSC leadership still 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 to a group of participants defined by the terms of a Trust Indenture among the employer (CUNY), the union (Professional Staff Congress/CUNY) and the Fund. Since 1986, the Welfare Fund has also been responsible for providing health insurance to eligible adjuncts, using funds provided by CUNY. Supplemental health benefits are those that supplement basic health insurance: prescription drugs, dental care, optical care, hearing aids and more. 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, according to the terms of the contract between CUNY and the PSC, and the terms of agreements reached on behalf of all municipal unions by the Municipal Labor Committee in negotiations with the City of New York. From this revenue, the Fund provides benefits to all participants. The PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund includes in its membership 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. Visit the Welfare Fund website for more information.

Does any of the income of the Welfare Fund come from union dues?
No. Union dues pay for the activities of the union on behalf of the membership of the PSC. Union activities include filing grievances, negotiating the contract, organizing contract campaigns, advocating for legislation beneficial to PSC members and CUNY, paying for legal representation on such issues as furlough proposals, and analyzing CUNY policies and budgets. Union dues cover the expenses of the union’s staff, office and materials. The Welfare Fund is funded by contributions by CUNY, on behalf of active and retired members of the instructional staff, 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 twenty 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 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. What makes the past approach impossible now is that the operating deficit caused by CUNY’s underfunding of adjunct health insurance has drawn down most of the reserve and 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, even though these are obviously extremely 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 about 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 first Board of Trustees’ 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 as needed to press for a solution. If you want to play a part in shaping the campaign, contact Brian Graf on the union staff: bgraf@pscmail.org to sign up. Because this campaign is about CUNY’s fundamental relationship to its workforce—even its acknowledgement of its workforce—it may be one of the most important the union has ever waged. No issue is more fundamental than the right to health care. We need everyone who cares about justice, who cares about what the University stands for, to get involved.