MTA seeks health insurance for part-time college instructors

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is denying health insurance to part-time faculty working at community and state colleges and the University of Massachusetts, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Suffolk Superior Court by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

The MTA, along with the Massachusetts Community College Council and five adjunct faculty members, is seeking coverage for hundreds of employees who teach multiple courses per semester at different public institutions, yet are not considered eligible for state health insurance.

“We are taking legal action to right a wrong that has been overlooked for too long and get some much-needed relief for these faculty members,” MTA President Anne Wass said. “This lawsuit is about investing in public higher education.”

The unfair treatment of adjunct faculty members is well documented and well known in Massachusetts and throughout the country. More than half of the courses at community colleges across Massachusetts and the entire nation are taught by part-time instructors, many of whom have to teach at several institutions to patch together a living.

Despite their contribution to public higher education, these faculty members are paid per course and not given health insurance benefits. In the Massachusetts community college system, adjuncts are paid between $2,535 and $3,069 per three-credit course. Five courses per semester constitute a full teaching load at community colleges in the state.

The legal action addresses two separate fronts. First, the suit alleges that the Commonwealth is erroneously refusing the faculty members access to the Group Insurance Commission, the state agency that administers health care coverage for state employees. The plaintiffs argue that many part-time instructors meet the definition of part-time employee as outlined in state law and must be treated as such.

“These part-time instructors sacrifice and persist because they love their work,” MCCC President Joseph LeBlanc said. “They persist in a challenging work environment, and wages are just one part of the problem.

“Despite the Commonwealth’s groundbreaking 2006 law expanding access for Massachusetts residents to health insurance, these adjunct faculty members are paid for each course they teach and are then forced to pay hundreds of dollars each month for health insurance,” LeBlanc added.

The MTA, the MCCC and the plaintiffs are also alleging that the state has not implemented the part of the Health Care Reform Act that would provide assistance, in the form of pro-rated contributions, to faculty members who cannot get health insurance from the GIC and instead buy coverage through the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority. The authority, an independent state agency tasked with helping citizens secure health insurance, was created after the passage of the reform act, which established a system to require almost all individuals to obtain health insurance.

“It’s absurd that the state mandates health care for employers, but doesn’t recognize us as employees,” said John Cipora, who has served as an adjunct psychology and sociology instructor at Holyoke Community College since 2001 and is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “To have earned a doctorate and not be able to have health insurance is unbelievably unfair.”

Another plaintiff, Patrick Lochelt, teaches more than a full course load at Northern Essex Community College and Middlesex Community College. With between 20 and 25 students in each of his classes, he estimates that he spends about 20 hours a week reviewing assignments in addition to actual instruction time. Because Lochelt teaches writing classes and requires each student to write five essays, he estimates that he grades about 1,000 papers per semester.

“It’s about fairness,” Lochelt said. “I teach the amount that I do because I love the work, I like making a difference in the lives of my students, and it helps me to make the money that I need to live modestly. However, it is frustrating to give so much and get so little back in return.”

Currently, there are 4,300 adjunct faculty members teaching at the state’s 15 community colleges. There are 13 percent more adjuncts teaching at community colleges now than six years ago, mainly due to the recent spike in student enrollment.

Cynthia Duda, an adjunct English instructor at Bunker Hill Community College and North Shore Community College, said being solely responsible for her health insurance is difficult year after year.

“I’m 61, so my health insurance costs more because I’m older,” said Duda, who has been working as a community college instructor in Massachusetts since 1990 and is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I make less than half per course what a full-time person makes, and I wake up every morning worrying about the bills I have to pay. It takes an enormous toll in every way.”

MTA Staff Attorney Matthew Jones is the lead attorney on this case.