University offers fitting part-time benefits

A few weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an opinion piece by senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers union Daniel Kovalik titled “Death of an adjunct.” The article described the situation surrounding the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University who taught French for 25 years.

Unable to pay bills for her cancer treatment and ineligible for health benefits from Duquesne due to her status as an adjunct, Vojtko died in poverty from a heart attack on her front lawn. The tragic situation sparked an outcry over the treatment of adjunct faculty, and was covered by many news sources, even sparking an opinion piece published on CNN’s website titled “Adjunct professors are the new working poor.”

The outcry over this tragic incident is justified, and the benefits given to adjunct faculty deserve further investigation.

Carnegie Mellon does a commendable job in offering appropriate benefits to its adjunct faculty. In university-provided information regarding employee benefits, the word “adjunct” is not used. Instead, university employees are labeled full-time; part-time benefits eligible; and part-time not benefits eligible. According to documents publicly available on the university website, the qualification for benefits depends on whether or not an employee has worked for the university for more than four months and over 17.5 hours per week, or has worked 46.7 percent of a “full-time schedule.”

After these criteria are met, Carnegie Mellon employees are eligible for medical benefits, as well as retirement contributions. Dental and vision benefits are reserved for full-time staff. It is admirable that Carnegie Mellon provides health benefits for part-time faculty, especially when other universities do not. The criteria for eligibility is fair.

As detailed on the university’s human resources website, Carnegie Mellon currently has 83 part-time faculty members, which accounts for about 6 percent of university faculty. That means that — at maximum — only 6 percent of faculty are not eligible for at least some of the benefits that the university offers, although many may be eligible.

However, the situation seems more dire for faculty at many other universities. The Affordable Health Care Act, which would require all people to purchase some form of health insurance, could partially resolve the issue of professors not being provided with health insurance. Unfortunately, this does not eliminate the financial obligation of having to purchase health care — even at lower, public marketplace rates — a burden that could be lightened if more adjunct faculty were eligible to receive health benefits.