One of the unfortunate realities facing many adjuncts is the need to rely on employment insurance between teaching periods. Although there’s no shame in relying on funds that you’ve paid into, it does underscore the problem facing adjuncts. Summer teaching positions are thin on the ground due to lower enrolment in the intersession and summer semesters, so some adjuncts depend on drawing from EI just to survive.
EI rules in Canada are not specifically tailored to the postsecondary sector of employment, and adjuncts are lumped in with other teachers although the two groups face quite different circumstances. As well, the reporting framework for compensation can be confusing or ill-suited to the contractual circumstances — for example, most adjuncts are paid on a monthly, not weekly, basis.
Adjuncts are ineligible to receive EI regular benefits if they haven’t accumulated enough hours to qualify. It is hardly a secret that the contract hours are fewer than the hours spent to perform the actual work, considering the amount of preparation, grading, and consultation with students. Nor do voluntary, unpaid service commitments count towards insurable hours. Hours worked that are “off the books” not only degrades compensation rates but also cannot be leveraged for EI eligibility.
Available to work
All EI claimants technically must be ready and available for work to remain eligible. However, consider this scenario: it is August and you have a contract to teach three new courses for the autumn semester. This will involve considerable time to develop those courses from scratch.
According to EI rules, you should be spending all your time looking for employment. Even with a contract in hand for the fall, you’re not expected to engage in course development. Course development is neither employment nor training under EI, so what is it? Unlike going shopping to improve one’s professional wardrobe, developing and revising courses is essential labour to meet the requirements of the upcoming contract.
Changes in the EI system mean that frequent claimants (those who have collected 60 weeks of benefits in the last five years), in order to collect EI again, would have to accept work that pays 80 percent of their previous position for the first six weeks, and pays 70 percent by the seventh week. Seventy percent of many adjunct rates would lead to retail and service work.
And even these jobs may not be open to adjuncts if they are deemed overqualified. Complicating this scenario, with a contract in hand to teach in September, an adjunct might not be able to commit to an employer beyond the summer. Should we also mention that adjuncts may be in direct competition with students for summer employment?
Hard to find time for research
Adjuncts who still entertain the idea of entering the profession on a full-time basis should be using the summer months to engage in activities that enhance their research profiles. However, the time may not be available in the summer, if the adjuncts are searching for work or working at low-paid jobs. Universities could consider paying them over the summer by spacing out their compensation, but that route would further impoverish adjuncts. All in all, the system seems stacked against adjuncts improving their position.
Assume another scenario: you have been asked to present at an important, possibly career-defining international conference in July and you have socked away enough money to attend. If you do, you must report on the EI form that you were outside Canada and not available for work; your claim will be suspended for that period. After considering the costs for travel and registration, this final deduction can make the trip prohibitive.
Presenting at a conference is not a vacation but rather a way to remain relevant in the discipline; it seems unfair to withhold benefits from people seeking to improve their professional qualifications.
With a maximum EI entitlement of about $1,800 per month, this is not exactly the high life. A modest proposal might be that Service Canada change its rules to reflect the realities of adjunct employment and treat the time spent in professionalization and preparatory activities to satisfy the conditions of future employment (such as course development or research activities for an upcoming contract) as a species of job training, allowing the claimant to continue receiving the EI benefit without interruption.
Of course, the bolder proposal would be for universities to cease relying so heavily on adjunct employment in the first place, and create more full-time positions.
Either way, it’s time we discuss this issue out in the open.