Union suing CUNY in federal court
Being an adjunct at a college can be risky. Adjuncts don’t have the tenure of professors, and they sometimes have to wait until the last minute to find out how many classes they’ll be teaching, and sometimes whether they’ll be teaching next semester at all.
Still, many department chairs and administrators consider them an essential part of their teaching staff, and some adjuncts have been teaching at the same college for more than 10 years.
This year, four times as many adjuncts as in a normal year will lose their health insurance because of layoffs or restructured cost assignments, according to the Professional Staff Congress, which represents adjuncts. Most CUNY adjuncts received the news by email on June 30.
The PSC is now suing CUNY in federal court, saying that the City University violated its obligations under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act by laying off thousands of adjunct faculty and staff, weeks after it was awarded $251 million in relief money, Bloomberg News reported. The PSC is seeking a preliminary injunction against adjunct layoffs and reinstatement of the laid-off employees.
At Brooklyn College in particular, according to the PSC, 81 adjuncts kept their insurance, but 52 were threatened with the loss of insurance. At Kingsborough Community College, the figures were 60 and 20.
Speaking about the current situation, Immanuel Ness, chair of political science at Brooklyn College, said the adjuncts are an important part of his department. “We try to create continuity in our classes, try to hire adjuncts who can take on two or three classes,” he commented.
Calling the cutbacks an “ethical issue,” he said, “We have adjuncts who have been teaching for many years, more than some full professors.”
Giving CUNY’s point of view, an official statement from the City University read, in part, “Part-time faculty are valued members of the CUNY community who make important contributions inside and outside of our classrooms. As is customary, in making reappointment decisions for adjuncts, the University and its colleges relied on the best fiscal information and enrollment projections currently available.
“Unfortunately, CUNY is not immune to the challenges and uncertainties engendered by the COVID-19 crisis, and in the absence of federal funding to support New York State and New York City through this crisis, our fiscal outlook is dim and uncertain. … As a result, colleges are informing a large number of adjunct professors that their reappointment for the fall 2020 semester cannot be guaranteed.”
If the financial situation improves, the statement continues, some of the adjuncts could be rehired for the fall semester.
At the time of her Eagle interview, Kelsey Chatlosh, a student in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and an adjunct at Brooklyn College, was awaiting an email that would tell her whether she would be reappointed or not. While adjuncts have been laid off before, she said, it’s different this year.
“We in New York City have been one of the hardest-hit cities by the pandemic,” she said. “Being an adjunct, for many, is their source of income and health insurance.”
According to CUNY’s website, “Teaching Adjuncts working six or more credit hours per week, consecutively for the entire semester will be eligible for health coverage pending they worked one or two courses per week for the past two semesters.”
Another adjunct at Brooklyn College, Heidi Diehl, has an MFA degree in creative writing, is a published novelist, and has been teaching in the English Department for 10 years.
“There’s a misconception that all adjuncts are graduate students. Many are longtime teachers,” she said. She also had an administrative job in the department, although that was canceled for budgetary reasons.
The situation is “very nerve-wracking,” she said. In addition to many adjuncts losing their health insurance, she added, the situation hurts students, since many of them are used to taking classes with the same adjunct for more than one semester.
It’s possible that the PSC’s lawsuit may succeed in court, or the CUNY system could receive more money from the state or the federal government. Until then, the situation for adjunct professors will be even more precarious than during “normal” years.