Education

Part-time professors struggle to put food on the table. Some want a union to fix that.

This Jan. 8, 2014, photo shows the contents of a specially prepared box of food at a food bank in Petaluma, Calif. New data shows that one in four Florida adjuncts are food insecure.
This Jan. 8, 2014, photo shows the contents of a specially prepared box of food at a food bank in Petaluma, Calif. New data shows that one in four Florida adjuncts are food insecure. AP

Muhammad Rehan skipped lunch for years. He’d fill up on the cheapest fast-food breakfasts and dinners and save his cash to keep the fridge at home stocked for his wife and kids.

It fit his unpredictable schedule as a part-time professor (also known as an adjunct) of health sciences at Broward College. But it eventually caught up with him.

In September, right after he maxed out his credit cards preparing for Hurricane Irma, his doctor told him he had Type 2 diabetes from his fast food habit. He thinks he would have caught it earlier if he hadn’t also been doing without health insurance to save money.

“It was one of the most difficult periods in my life,” he said.

Now his struggle to pay the bills and feed his family is harder than ever, and he’s not the only one in the state facing such hardships. A recent survey from a unionizing organization revealed that many of the part-time professors who responded have experienced some type of money troubles.

Frustration with the permanent limbo of an unsteady job with low pay and no benefits has led an increasing number of faculty members seeking to unionize, including at Broward College. The organization spearheading the movement in Florida is the Service Employees International Union, under their “Faculty Forward” campaign.

Read More: Part-time professors say they’re underpaid and undervalued. Are unions the answer?

SEIU’s latest report, “Life on the edge of the blackboard,” surveyed 773 Florida faculty, the majority of whom work as part-time professors, or adjuncts. It showed that most of the respondents faced at least one, if not more, indicators of poverty.

Half of the respondents said they make between $10,000 and $30,000 a year. One-third have gone without health insurance.

Like Rehan, one in four have trouble putting food on their table. They either skip meals, visit food banks and soup kitchens or receive food stamps.

Those numbers are even higher in Miami.

Issues finding housing, in particular, are more common in Miami at 36 percent than the statewide average of 28 percent. A handful of Miami respondents said they have faced homelessness. An adjunct at Broward College that teaches religion lives out of her broken down van, nicknamed “Tinny,” because it’s like living in a tin can.

At her school, nearly two in three professors are adjuncts. That’s higher than the national average, which pegs the number of part-time professors at more than half the county’s total stock of college faculty.

At the University of South Florida, which is a little further along in the unionization process, Jared Fennel, an adjunct English professor at USF and the University of Tampa, said he’s heard adjuncts compared to hobbyists with other jobs on the side.

“The fiction is we’re completely temporary and we’ll only be here for a semester or so,” he said. “Which is just not the case for any adjunct I know.”

With money even tighter statewide, especially at public colleges, Fennel said he thinks schools would rather spend the money they have on flashy amenities that attract students — like a stadium.

“It’s not sexy. You can’t point it out to a 17-year-old and say, ‘Oh, look, our adjuncts aren’t starving. We pay them a living wage,’” he said. “It’s not a selling point.”

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