TAMPA — Twenty minutes passed in the parking lot. Cheryl DeFlavis' 5-year-old son kept asking questions. Why are we here? What's going on?
DeFlavis, 34, had heard of adjunct professors like herself sleeping in cars and getting evicted. She knew firsthand of the low pay, the nonexistent benefits, the cobbled-together income that barely paid the bills.
But she still hadn't expected to find herself here, outside a Brandon food bank in the long summer stretch between classes at Hillsborough Community College.
She walked inside, terrified that a student would see her. When she told the staff what she did for a living, they looked at her in shock.
"It sort of stopped the questions," she said. "It was like, if things are bad enough for this professor to be here, let's just wave her along."
Months later, though, DeFlavis and others in her profession are celebrating a victory. After years of discussion, adjunct faculty at HCC voted to unionize by a nearly 2-1 ratio, forming the first union of its kind in the state.
"This is a fight on the right side of justice, and as a philosophy professor who teaches a lot of ethics, I don't use those words lightly," HCC adjunct Mark Castricone said. "We're being exploited to an extent that I think is unconscionable, and it's hidden."
About 1,000 adjuncts were eligible to vote on the union issue in November, but nearly half abstained. The final count was 339 for, 189 against.
"We have a very strong relationship with our full-time faculty union," HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl said. "I would anticipate, moving forward, a similarly strong relationship."
As college prices have ballooned, the number of low-paid, part-time faculty also has swelled. In 1975, tenured and tenure-track faculty made up about 57 percent of the nation's college workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Today, just 30 percent are tenured or on track to be. Half of the nation's faculty now work as part-time adjuncts, paid per class, often without benefits, offices and job security, according to the AAUP.
Florida is no exception. In 2015, HCC had 310 full-time faculty and 1,142 part-timers. Full-time faculty teach just over half of all classes.
Adjuncts offer colleges flexibility, fresh talent and, in some cases, real-world experience, with few strings attached. And they're affordable. The median pay per course in the Southeast was $1,800 at a public, associate-level institution and $2,800 for a doctoral-level course at a private school, the Service Employees International Union says, based on reports from adjuncts. In the new year, HCC adjuncts will make about $1,840 to $2,000 per course.
"Ideally, a student shouldn't see a difference between a full-time professor and a part-time professor," Carl said. "We want to hire quality instructors for HCC, so we would hope that it would be seamless."
This semester, DeFlavis, a sociology professor, has been racing between seven classes at HCC and Pasco-Hernando State College. She has made up to $26,000 per year teaching this way, but classes are never guaranteed. Last year, she brought in just $18,000.
"Grading happens when I should be asleep, and a lot of brainstorming happens when I'm going from campus to campus," she said.
Full-time positions, she has found, are few and far between in the dismal college job market, where significant numbers of students graduate after a decade of studies with doctorates, heavy debt and few academic job prospects.
"I'm a great teacher, but I could be so much more amazing if I could just teach three or four classes," DeFlavis said. "It becomes poor working conditions for us, which becomes poor learning conditions for students."
She said conversations about unionizing emerged after National Adjunct Walkout Day in 2013. Faculty Forward, a project of SEIU, got involved and a coordinated union effort began. Enough signatures were collected to file election paperwork with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission.
HCC leaders made their opposition known. Administrators took issue with certain campaign talking points, such as $15,000 pay per class, that would have to be bargained for, Carl said. Adjuncts have circulated surveys to identify top bargaining priorities, such as better pay, more stability, sick days and health insurance subsidies.
"Heaven forbid you have kids and you get sick or they get sick," said HCC adjunct Eric Fiske, 33. "There's not a lot of room for error for an adjunct."
A political science professor, Fiske said he hopes that union efforts help shift higher education's focus back to faculty and students, rather than metrics and the bottom line.
At St. Petersburg College, 58 percent of the student semester hours are taught by full-time faculty, but more than three-quarters of the faculty are part time or not on a tenure track.
Meanwhile, the University of South Florida has bucked national trends. Just 21 percent of faculty are adjuncts. Their pay ranges from $3,500 to $10,000 per course, depending on the discipline and level of expertise.
Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost and dean of the office of graduate studies, said USF wants to give students as much access as possible to full-time faculty, even in a decade of austerity.
"But adjuncts very much have a place in the teaching mission at USF," he said.
Adjuncts typically come in four types, he said: business and industry experts, retired academics, graduate students out of financial aid, and those who try to cobble together a living by teaching at several institutions.
Castricone, the HCC adjunct, is in the latter group.
"I kind of got trapped in the adjunct game," he said. "They prey upon our love of this job."
Castricone, 32, teaches as many classes as he can between HCC and USF. He said he takes home less than $30,000 a year.
"One of my life goals is to not have to shop at Walmart anymore," he said. He doesn't take vacations. He's waiting on another paycheck to buy new tires.
"I don't even know what real people do anymore, honestly," he said. "I've been living so light for so long."
Last month, DeFlavis drove to Tallahassee. She wanted to watch the union votes stack up as they were counted in the offices of the Public Employees Relations Commission.
"The suspense was killing me," she said.
She thought of the stories she'd heard in years of union discussions: the adjuncts who camped at conferences because hotels cost too much; the ones trying to get public assistance who were told, "I can't believe you make that little." The rice and beans and oatmeal she carried out of the food bank.
She watched as the "yes" pile slowly grew.
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.