Gaining Access to Unemployment Insurance

By Stewart, Beverly | Academe, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Gaining Access to Unemployment Insurance


Stewart, Beverly, Academe


The system is stacked against contingents, but these strategies can help.

In some states, contingent faculty routinely receive unemployment compensation between semesters. In California, contingents owe that benefit to the decision in the hard-fought 1989 case Cervisi v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. In other states, such as Illinois, unemployment benefits are awarded on a case-by-case basis; some contingent faculty receive them and others do not, depending on the case and how vigorously an institution challenges a claim. In yet other states, filing for unemployment can result not only in a denial of benefits but also in the loss of a job.

The ability of contingent academic laborers to secure unemployment benefits depends on how the concept of "reasonable assurance" is interpreted, that is, does an applicant have reasonable assurance of being hired the next semester? That standard was set in the 1970s, when the Social Security Act was expanded to make public employees, including teachers, eligible to receive unemployment. Legislators did not, however, want full-time teachers to apply for unemployment during summer breaks unless they could prove that they had no reasonable assurance of employment in the fall. This standard still applies. So today, now that contingents represent more than half of the higher education teaching force, countless faculty members who have no reasonable assurance of employment for the next semester must demonstrate that fact to receive unemployment benefits. What constitutes proof varies from state to state, and the burden of proving a negative falls on individual instructors should their institutions challenge their claims.

Using contingent faculty gives colleges and universities scheduling flexibility, and the lack of obligation to offer benefits to contingents saves them much money. I contend that, in return for this shirking of responsibility, institutions of higher education should provide the merest unemployment insurance benefit to its contingent labor force. The economic lives of contingent faculty members can be devastated by the loss of a single class, and the wage gap they experience between semesters causes them great financial strain. For that reason, I worked with Joe Berry and Helena Worthen of the University of Illinois' Labor Education Program to write Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty: A Manual for Applicants anda Strategy to Gain Full Rights to Benefits. The three of us are working with other activists to win that right for all contingent academics, beginning in our home state of Illinois (see sidebar).

Tips for Getting Benefits

What follows is a summary of strategies that contingent academics or their local and state unions might follow in seeking unemployment benefits for contingents.

Step 1. Read our manual, cited above, and do not overlook the appendix, which summarizes by state the realities reported by activists (unfortunately, information is not available from all states).

Step 2. Subscribe to the ADJ-L Listserv of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, where you will find a community of activists spanning the North American continent. To subscribe, go to http//adj-l.org/mailman/listinfo/adj-l_adj-l.org. Listserv participants can answer your questions about filing for benefits and introduce you to local activists or unions that may be working on this issue in your state.

Some states uphold institutional decisions to dismiss or not re-employ those who seek benefits. Checking with Listserv participants is a useful way to determine whether you are in one of those states. The National Education Association offers legal support to members who live in such states who lose their jobs for filing claims.

Step 3. Go to the agency in your state that handles unemployment insurance to obtain claim forms and filing rules. Although each state handles unemployment differently, the general application process may be similar from state to state. …

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