Adjunct professors angry at MDC email about Medicaid sign-up ahead of union vote

As adjunct professors at Miami Dade College prepare for a union vote, an administrative notice suggesting low-income teachers can sign their children up for Medicaid has further inflamed tensions between the two sides.

Frustrated adjunct professors, who make $2,460 per three-credit course and are not eligible to receive medical benefits, are hoping to join a growing movement of unionization across the state.

Over the past two years, more than half — or about 9,000 — of Florida’s adjunct professors have joined a union or are organizing toward unionization, according to the Service Employees International Union.

On March 27, the adjunct professors at MDC will vote on whether to join the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage and paid leave. Ballots were mailed out Wednesday, organizers said.

At Miami Dade College, whose president was formerly an adjunct professor, tensions between pro-union instructors and the administration began to fester following the decision to file for a union election in July 2018. A majority vote is required for passage.

Last month, adjunct professors received an email from the vice provost for human resources about health insurance titled “Does Your Child have Insurance?”

The email, sent by Iliana Castillo-Frick on Jan. 28 and obtained by the Miami Herald, informs part-time employees that Florida KidCare, an overarching term for the four government-sponsored healthcare programs for the children of low-income families, could help cover the insurance of their children if they qualify.

“Don’t let health insurance premiums stand in the way of your child’s health,” it reads. “With Florida KidCare, your child may qualify for free or low-cost coverage.”

Alphonso Mayfield, the president of SEIU Florida Public Services Union, lamented the “broken” system of higher education that would make such an email necessary.

“That’s why adjunct professors are coming together to form their unions,” Mayfield said in a statement. “Only by standing together can we address soaring tuition, growing debt and poverty wages that result from a failure to invest in our students and educators.”

Part-time faculty at MDC are looking to join five other schools in the Florida College System with a unionized adjunct workforce, according to WLRN. Adjunct professors at Broward College joined the SEIU in 2018.

In a statement to the Miami Herald, MDC spokesman Juan Mendieta said the “informational email” was sent to all part-time employees — not exclusively adjunct faculty.

He said that adjuncts at MDC are “the highest paid in Florida among state colleges,” and that 62 percent of newly hired full-time instructors have come from the pool of adjuncts.

Union organizers say there are 3,300 adjunct professors at MDC, making up about 45 percent of the faculty in fall of 2017.

“We believe that having a direct working relationship with adjunct faculty is critical to continually improving our workplace and quality of employment,” Mendieta said. “We are not against unions. We are for individuals. Adjunct faculty can certainly look to unionize but there is nothing they can’t do now that they can accomplish through the SEIU and paying dues.”

In a so-called “right-to-work” state like Florida, non-union members are not required to pay dues to work in a unionized workplace.

Stacey Wadle, an adjunct professor in the business and English departments at MDC, said she supports the push to unionize after seeing her pay hover at about $20,000 per year.

She typically teaches six courses per calendar year. The maximum allowed per year at MDC is nine, she said. It is typical for adjunct professors to teach courses at multiple colleges, which complicates commutes in gridlock-riddled South Florida. Part-time instructors also face uncertainty when signing up to teach courses.

Nationwide, 31 percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line, according to 2015 data. In Florida, it’s 27 percent.

“I was at a meeting and someone with a PhD pulled out their SNAP card,” Wadle said, referring to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. “To me, that’s a social safety net. That shouldn’t be the default.”

When she received the vice provost’s email, Wadle said she was struck by sadness that such an email was necessary for some cash-strapped faculty.

“A sadness that my colleagues, my friends — they have post-graduate degrees — they have to sign their children up for Medicaid,” she said. “That’s not something you’d think would happen to someone with two college degrees.”

Wadle, 53, has a Master’s in Science in elementary education from Nova Southeastern University and an MBA from the University of Miami.

Married with two children, Wadle relies on her husband for health insurance but feels motivated to stand in solidarity with her colleagues who stand to benefit from negotiating power but who may not want to risk being fired or shut out of courses.

“Right now, there are many adjuncts afraid of losing their job,” she said. “There are people where this is their only income.”