Charles Mitchell teaches several English classes a year at Spokane Falls Community College.
And each summer for the past several years, when the school could not hire him, he applied for unemployment benefits through the state.
“It puts food on the table and pays my rent,” he said. “But aside from that, I could live without it.”
Mitchell and three other part-time instructors at the Community Colleges of Spokane have been asked by the state to do just that – to return jobless benefits they were paid last summer.
The colleges have challenged the payment of the benefits, arguing that the part-time “adjunct” instructors had a “reasonable assurance” that they’d be hired back each fall and should not therefore qualify for benefits during the summers. The state Employment Security Department agreed, after initially granting the benefits, and has demanded the instructors repay from $2,500 to $4,000 each.
The instructors are challenging that decision in court, with the help of the Washington Education Association and the CCS Association of Higher Education. They say that they have no guarantee of employment from one quarter to the next, and that several other adjunct faculty members across the state have been approved for jobless benefits under the same circumstances.
“We have adjuncts who received unemployment benefits during the summer, and we have some who are denied and have to pay it back,” said Carla Naccarato-Sinclair, president of the CCS Association of Higher Education faculty union. “That’s what leaves us scratching our heads.”
Greg Stevens, chief human resources officer for CCS, shares that frustration, noting that the college has been challenging several such cases a year recently, and has seen the rulings split about 50-50.
But he said the CCS has a duty to the public to make sure laws are followed and resources are used correctly. Officials don’t think adjuncts who have worked steadily for several years and who expect to continue teaching should qualify for unemployment benefits under the law.
One part of the administration’s argument has to do with health benefits. A recent court settlement established that adjuncts who work more than half time for a traditional nine-month academic year should be paid health benefits for the summer – if they’ve got a “reasonable expectation” of returning in the fall.
Therefore, some adjuncts – such as the four in the current case – were paid health benefits in the summer under the presumption that they have continuing employment, while getting unemployment benefits under the presumption that they may not.
“It’s hard to be unemployed and employed at the same time,” Stevens said.
Naccarato-Sinclair and Mitchell argue that the summer health benefits are based on work the adjuncts have already done, not the upcoming school year.
The heart of the dispute rests on the clause “reasonable assurance” – if an adjunct has one, he or she may not claim jobless benefits.
Mitchell says his employment depends on enrollments, and his classes are sometimes canceled or changed at the last minute.
“On the back of my contract, it says I have no guarantee of re-employment and should not take anything anyone says or does to constitute any assurance of re-employment,” he said.
But Stevens said the “reasonable assurance” clause is defined as “less than a contract but more than a mere possibility” of re-employment. To determine whether an instructor qualifies, CCS looks at many factors on a case-by-case basis, from the instructor’s length and consistency of employment to the enrollments of students in their discipline.
The appeals are being filed in Spokane County Superior Court. In addition to Mitchell, the instructors challenging the ruling are Roxanne Lawler, Ryan Morrison and Yasuka Huff.
The case may help lend some clarity to the confusion over which adjuncts qualify for jobless benefits.
“One good thing that could come out of this is a good definition of what reasonable assurance means and what it doesn’t mean,” Stevens said.