ACC Admits Fumbling Obamacare Memo
Administrators face grilling from local lawmakers
Austin Community College's senior administrators faced a severe grilling just before Christmas from local lawmakers. The questioning came over the administration's plans to cut the hours of some adjunct faculty, just when they could have started benefitting from the Affordable Care Act.
The furor began Nov. 22, when staff received a memo saying that some adjuncts may see their working week cut below 30 hours – the minimum threshold required to get employer-backed coverage under the new law (see "ACC Throws Book at Affordable Care Act," Dec. 13). In an unusual turn of events, on Dec. 19 ACC President Richard Rhodes, several members of his senior cabinet, and members of the board of trustees traveled to the state Capitol for a late afternoon meeting with Democratic Reps. Donna Howard and Elliott Naishtat, and staff from the offices of Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Dawnna Dukes, and Sen. Kirk Watson. The topic was very simple: Was ACC trying to avoid providing coverage for adjunct staff by cutting their hours?
According to Howard, "The president of the ACC board started the meeting by saying they had made a mistake." She explained, "The bottom line is that the initial information that came out that was of concern to many of us was premature, in that they were operating under incorrect information from the [Teacher Retirement System of Texas]." On further consultation with the state, the college has now been told they do not have to provide coverage to part-time employees – merely that they have to provide access to coverage. Howard said, "They are going to determine the best policy to move forward, so that they have something in place by the beginning of the school year."
The Nov. 22 memo informed staff that adjuncts would be limited to three courses, and hourly workers would be capped at 19 hours. As such, neither would be eligible for paid health care coverage. The big problem for the district is in the subset of adjuncts who have a second position, such as at the teaching lab, and so their combined positions come to over 30 hours. In any year, that accounts for 40 to 50 staff members. The memo was part of an ongoing discussion with faculty about how to handle those employees. ACC Executive Director of Public Information Brette Lea told the Chronicle it was simply a recommendation, with "human resources making an attempt to be transparent." Moreover, the working week limit "has been on the books as long as I can remember."
Neil Vickers, ACC vice president of budget and finance, said the memo was simply an update to the adjunct faculty, and that this had been explained at other meetings with the Adjunct Faculty Association. Now the district has had further clarification that they do not have to pay for coverage to adjuncts, just to make it available for adjunct staff to buy through the district – which is basically the current situation. In fact, he said, after consulting with ERS legal counsel, "we've come to the conclusion that the ACA doesn't affect us at all." The specifics of any other potential changes to employee conditions are still being hammered out, but, Vickers said, "In the meantime, no adjunct faculty hours have been cut, and there are no immediate plans for them to be cut."
However, there is nothing in the memo that suggests an ongoing process. That's why staff were so upset, and that's why lawmakers felt they had to intervene. For people who just read the memo, without attending the admin/faculty meetings, Vickers added, "If that's all they really did, we can understand that's why they felt that way." Should the language have been clearer? "In hindsight, yes."
ACCAFT Local 6249 President and adjunct assistant professor C. Marshall Bennett disputes the administration's suggestion that this was not their finalized plan. He said, "As far as I know, this was policy." He also argued that the district was being "disingenuous" about the limit for adjunct hours, since even though it was in place, it had never been implemented. He said, "Those policies that they don't follow, those aren't policy."
Moreover, Bennett argues that the memo clearly violated another part of board policy, which clearly states, "It is a goal of the College that adjunct faculty whose total work for ACC equals half-time or more annually have adequate health-insurance benefits." The policy clearly states that the president should budget to implement this goal. Yet Bennett said he has seen no indication of this. After the memo was released, he submitted an open records request for details on its implementation. "It took them a full 10 days," he said, "and then they came back and said, 'There are no documents responsive to the request.' In other words, they have no plan."
Vickers argues that there is a historical context to that policy that many are missing. After the last major shakeup of staff benefits in 1999, the board faced a very similar situation of split position FTEs. There were 80 or so, and to grandfather them into coverage, the district created a new class of employees, labeled instructional or college associates. Vickers argues that the board policy was intended to help them specifically, rather than create coverage for all adjuncts. Since then, the state rules on community college benefits have changed: Most importantly, the state no longer fully funds employee benefits, so the district would have to bear 50% of the costs. While he conceded that the adjunct coverage policy is still in place, Vickers said there are already discussions between the administration and the board officers about if and how to change it.