TAMPA - The area's two premiere public colleges are among a growing number cutting the hours of adjunct faculty members to keep them from qualifying for coverage under the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's initiative to get more Americans insured.
Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College officials say there's nothing insidious about the strategy - that instead, it's an economic necessity in an environment where elevating their largely part-time faculties to health-benefit status could cost millions of dollars they don't have.
"The bottom line here is that institutions are caught between a rock and a hard place," said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and a policy analyst with the American Association of Community Colleges. American higher education's heavy reliance on a contingent work force, which nationally stands at about 30 percent full-time to 70 percent part-time staff, according to the New Faculty Majority, a national coalition for adjuncts.
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, employees working more than 30 hours a week are eligible for coverage by their employer.
At Hillsborough Community College, there are 272 full-time faculty and 1,490 part-timers. The college has not yet compiled how many part-time employees would cross the 30-hour-a-week threshold, but previous reviews suggest about 110 would be affected - including nonfaculty employees. With a projected price tag of $7,850 per employee, it would cost the school $863,500 to enroll part-timers in the college health plan.
At St. Petersburg College, there are 325 full-time faculty and 1,406 part-timers. The college has identified 91 adjunct faculty and other employees who have been working more than 30 hours a week. At $8,100 per employee, it would cost St. Petersburg College about $777,600 to enroll these workers in the college health plan.
"We know that individuals need health insurance, and we expect that the state is going to provide for that. That dialogue is taking place away from us. We simply are not in a position to expand greatly what we're already doing in that regard," college President William Law told trustees at a May meeting.
"We spent a great deal of time on this. Some people's lives are being disrupted, and it doesn't feel good."
Pasco-Hernando Community College will not be cutting back on adjunct faculty hours "as the college's current hiring practices already comply with the Affordable Care Act," the school told the Tribune in an email.
At St. Petersburg College, the Faculty Governance Organization doesn't represent adjuncts. The group passed a resolution in April supporting the part-time faculty in general and encouraging the administration to offer adjuncts as many classes as permissible but only up to the 30-hour threshold.
Of the two options available to colleges - offer benefits to the 30-hour staffers or make sure they don't exceed 30 hours - "from what I can see, nearly all state-funded colleges are opting for the latter solution," said Richard Mercadante, head of the faculty group.
"Bottom line, for state colleges, the new law becomes an unfunded mandate. The part-time to full-time ratio is so large that any given college would have to find millions of dollars in their budgets to offer adjuncts health insurance."
Not all are so understanding of the school's decision to cut hours.
"Big problems require a real dedication to find solutions," said Matt Williams, an Akron, Ohio, consultant and co-founder of the New Faculty Majority, the adjuncts' advocacy group. "This just simply indicates how far higher education has strayed over the years with contingent faculty."
Williams said he understands the financial argument made by higher education administrators, but added, "That same argument has been made to justify a great number of injustices throughout history. Would it be painful to convert part-time faculty to full-time? Yes. But would there be benefits? Absolutely."
Complicating the Obamacare issue is defining how many hours adjunct staffers actually work. College lobbyists and the Internal Revenue Service are trying to determine how much out-of-classroom preparation time should be credited to an instructor who spends one hour in the classroom.
The standard is expected to be two to three additional hours. That will be significant in determining the total hours clocked by an adjunct teaching more than one class, and no conclusion has been reached.
The community college conundrum was one reason the Obama administration put a one-year hold on enforcing compliance by employers with the Affordable Care Act while additional details across the broad policy are worked out.
The two local colleges said despite the yearlong delay, they would impose the 30-hour thresholds by this fall.