A state fund for health insurance for part-time faculty hasn’t been increased in decades. Governor Gavin Newsom has offered to add $200 million. New data suggests this could solve the problem of part-time professors having to go without health insurance in some cases.
Part-time California community college instructors have to work multiple jobs to make a living, but some still don’t have enough health insurance.
A state fund to help them hasn’t been increased in decades by $490,000 a year, but now Governor Gavin Newsom is proposing to add $200 million a year. While the Office of the Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst says there is no data to justify these expensesa union has gathered investigative information that could help the governor’s case.
The California Federation of Teachers collected the results of a survey in 2022 of about 2,500 part-time instructors, nearly all teachers at community colleges — a significant portion of the roughly 35,000 part-timers employed across the vast state community college system.
The survey shows that 6% of part-time teachers do not have health insurance from any source. A third of respondents said they receive insurance from a college where they teach. About a quarter relied on coverage from their spouse, and 17% got theirs from Covered California or Medi-Cal.
Many say they are still missing out on vital medical care – an indication that their insurance may be inadequate. Of those who responded, 30% said they had not had a medical test or examination recommended by a doctor. Almost a fifth of respondents said they had not filled a prescription for themselves or a dependent and 11% said they had halved pills or skipped doses.
data, shared exclusively with CalMatters before being published today, provide a rare, if incomplete, overview of the health benefits and work patterns of part-time faculty. Sometimes known in education circles as “freeway flyers” because of the multiple colleges many work at for a living, these instructors make up the bulk of the faculty at the state’s 116 community colleges. but generally earn much less for the same amount of work full-time faculty receive.
The union argues that employers should provide health insurance, not spousal or state subsidies.
“It’s the cost of having employees,” said Jeffery Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents part-time faculty in about a third of the state’s 73 community college districts, as well as other employees.
In his latest state budget targetsthe state Senate leadership assumes Newsom’s $200 million plan passes, though nothing is finalized, said the office of pro Tempore Chairman Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego.
The current health program receives only $490,000 a year
Newsom’s plan is to supercharge a 1990s state fund that allows colleges to be partially reimbursed for providing health insurance to part-time faculty.
But this program receives only $490,000 per year, meaning it reimburses districts pennies on the dollar of the actual cost. The state program excludes vision and dental care cover. Districts instead use money from other state and local revenues provide insurance, but plans vary from covering all premium costs of a part-time faculty member up to less than 30%.
Meanwhile, part-time community college faculty from nearly half of college districts have no employer-provided health insurancean EdSource investigation found.
Separate analysis from the union suggests that $200 million a year is very close to the amount needed to provide high-quality health insurance to 50% of part-time faculty. The union’s analysis assumes that employees would pay no more than 10% premium fees.
The 50% threshold in the analysis also assumes that currently no district will have more than half of its part-time employees eligible for this health insurance due to minimum work requirements. If the program is better funded, it is likely that more teachers will participate.
How the $200 million could help a part-time faculty member
The teachers’ federation wants apply several modifications to Newsom’s plan before the state budget is adopted by June 15.
One is to allow part-time faculty to combine their teaching loads in multiple districts to meet the minimum threshold of 40 percent full-time state curriculum work needed to access health insurance coverage. Currently, an instructor who teaches 20% of a full-time load in two different districts is not able to merge those workloads to qualify for health insurance. Some colleges choose to require a higher threshold for part-time faculty to access insurance. To circumvent this, the union also wants to make the 40% threshold the minimum requirement at all colleges. But that rule would only apply to colleges that want to use extra funds from state health insurance if there’s money left over.
Either of these changes would help restore free or affordable health insurance for Juli Jones, likely saving her more than $1,000 a month. Jones is a professor of American history at Cuyamaca College in San Diego County. Until last September, she had college district health insurance, with her employer paying the full premium. But because the college reduced her teaching load from five classes to four in the past two academic years, she fell below the minimum hours threshold to qualify for district-paid insurance.
To keep her insurance benefits, she purchased a COBRA plan that costs about $1,370 a month for her and her husband, she said. Due to a health issue, she was called back from teaching in another nearby college district, but normally she would teach in both districts to cobble together a full-time job.
Pursuing enough teaching assignments to qualify for benefits “is like Russian roulette,” Jones said. “It’s like a roller coaster that never stops and I’m still desperately trying to get more sections to power this thing up and keep it going.”
Health insurance is part of a larger whole
At least one lawmaker had argued that the path to better benefits was for more part-time professors to become tenured. “It’s a no-brainer for me: why not just hire them full-time, give them the benefits they deserve as full-time employees?” asked Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat from Long Beach, during a hearing in April. “I’m still struggling with this $200 million concept because it’s a fix, not a solution.”
But last year, college finance officials said declining community college enrollment means tying up money for full-time faculty makes little fiscal sense. The faculty disagreed.
It may seem counterintuitive that unions are fighting for better pay for part-time faculty when they also want more full-time college openings. But by paying part-time faculty “like you pay full-time faculty” and giving them health care, colleges have no benefit in continuing to hire part-time faculty, “so you might as well hire full-time teachers,” Freitas said.
About one one-third of the faculty are full-time with benefits. Not only does this full-time status come with a higher salary, but the salaries represent all the work that professors have to do outside of the classroom to educate their students, such as grading, lesson planning and student mentoring. But colleges rarely pay part-time faculty for this extra-class work.
There is a growing resistance to this reality. Two part-time community college professors are suing Long Beach City College, arguing that the unpaid work they do outside of the classroom violates state minimum wage law. Along the same lines, a bill by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat, would require colleges pay part-time faculty at a rate equal to what full-time faculty earn. A legislative committee estimates that alone would cost at least $267 million a year.
The new union survey shows that 59% of respondents earn less than $40,000 from their teaching jobs – even though more than half work at least half a full teaching load and most want to teach more. Meanwhile, an investigation by EdSource revealed that the average salary of part-time community college professors is less than $20,000.
Jones, the part-time San Diego-area instructor, isn’t the only one seeing her teaching load reduced. Declining student enrollment has prompted community colleges to reduce the number of courses they offer, leaving less work for untenured teachers.
That’s why the Office of the Legislative Analyst asked if it made sense to tie part-time faculty health insurance to college employment. “Potentially having to change health plans frequently might be less optimal for part-time faculty than staying insured under covered California.
But if the state pours more money into health plans for part-time faculty, “unions and districts can negotiate to improve the benefits currently offered,” said Laurel Lucia, director of the health care program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Colleges that already offer health plans to part-time faculty “could reduce the amount of premium the worker is required to pay or they could reduce the amount people have to pay out of pocket to access care.”
Jones said she would enroll in Covered California if her COBRA runs out early next year and her employer’s health insurance is not reinstated. It’s not ideal, she says, because she’s used to doctors and care from her current plan, which she could lose under another insurer.
“But, frankly, if I’m not teaching enough, then the odds of me being able to afford the payment (for Covered California) aren’t very good either,” Jones said.