Editorial: St. Petersburg College shouldn't skirt health care law

Published Aug. 23, 2013

St. Petersburg College is among the colleges acting like fast food restaurants and cutting workers' hours to avoid providing them health coverage required by the Affordable Care Act. SPC president Bill Law says he can't find the money in a $147 million budget to offer health insurance for 250 adjunct professors. The college prepares students for good jobs after graduation — meaning jobs that include health benefits. Its faculty deserves the same consideration.

Adjuncts make up half of all faculty at the nation's colleges and universities, and they earn about 60 percent less than comparable full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty. Most of the faculty at St. Petersburg College are adjunct instructors. Law recently told NBC News that he cut the hours of 250 adjunct professors for the fall term because the college can't afford to spend $777,000 per year to provide them with health insurance.

The college's board of trustees also is responsible for this shortsighted decision. Law told the trustees in May that the school is using computer analysis to keep adjuncts below 29 hours per week because the college "is not prepared" to provide health coverage to everyone who works 30 hours or more. Not a single trustee asked the logical question: Why not?

Law is not alone in adopting this strategy. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that colleges in Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among those that have pre-emptively limited the number of weekly hours to keep their adjuncts under 29 hours per week.

Under the Affordable Care Act, any employer of 50 or more full-time workers must either provide coverage or pay a tax penalty. A full-time employee is defined as having worked 30 or more hours a week. The employer mandate was to go into effect in 2014 but has been postponed until 2015 by the Obama administration.

Counting weekly hours for adjunct professors is tricky. They are typically paid per credit hour, yet for every hour spent in the classroom they may spend an additional two or more hours on instructional preparation, grading papers and tests, helping students with questions and administration. (The IRS has yet to finalize rules on this.)

St. Petersburg College is a prominent employer and prized public institution in Pinellas County. It should try harder to implement the federal health care law and provide the coverage to its faculty members that the law requires rather than cutting their hours and skirting the intent of health care reform. Law and the college's trustees should revisit this issue and find the money.