Many adjunct instructors at Virginia's 23 community colleges will see their hours cut starting this summer thanks to Virginia's response to the new federal health reform law, a change that could cripple or kill livelihoods teachers like Ann Hubbard worked hard to build.
The onrushing 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is forcing governments at all levels to scramble to accommodate changes -- some intended, some not -- to public- and private-sector jobs over the next year.
But the changes in store for about a quarter of Virginia's 9,100 adjunct faculty members have less to do with health insurance -- a benefit they don't receive anyway -- than with the opportunity to teach enough class hours to pay the bills.
Hubbard, for example, learned a few days ago that she would see her annual 45 credit-hour load nearly halved.
As a 48-year-old single mother from Williamsburg with a daughter finishing her freshman year at Virginia Tech, Hubbard says the income from her heavy teaching schedule at two southeastern Virginia community colleges is vital.
Asking her what she will do when she's cut to no more than 27 credit hours a year is almost more than she can bear.
"You ask me that and I literally start shaking," Hubbard said in a telephone interview last week.
Under the new federal law, employers are obliged to provide health benefits for any employee who works 30 hours or more. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell responded in February by directing that all part-time state employees work 29 hours or less to avoid the 30-hour threshold.
Because community college adjunct professors are contractors, not state employees, they're paid by the class load they carry; they don't punch a clock. And, because they're contractors, they are also ineligible for retirement benefits or unemployment compensation should they find themselves jobless.
In translating the governor's directive into terms applicable for higher education, Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois limited adjunct teachers to seven credit hours in the summer and no more than 10 each in the fall and spring semesters.
The bottom line is that no Virginia adjunct professor at a community college can earn more than $17,000 a year before taxes when the changes take effect in a few weeks, said J. Gabriel Scala, an adjunct English professor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, which serves the Richmond area.
"I love teaching. I wouldn't do anything else. I've never anticipated getting rich off being a teacher. But the rent has to be paid and I have to eat and gas has to be put in the car, and $17,000 a year isn't going to do it," she said.
She organized a Facebook group of Virginia community college faculty concerned about the change. Through it, adjuncts and their allies can find out how to write to DuBois, McDonnell or even President Barack Obama appealing for an exemption that would allow them to teach full loads without forcing the state to add them to its health plan.
"No one is too upset about not being offered health benefits. What's upsetting -- and dangerous -- is all the hours being cut," said Scala, a 41-year-old with a master's degree in creative writing, a doctorate in English and an opportunity to teach full time this fall at a university.
"Many adjuncts work at more than one community college. Some teach up to eight classes a semester," she said.
Many adjuncts hope that because the Internal Revenue Service has yet to finalize regulations on part-time employment, the IRS might create an exemption that remedies the dilemma administratively.
Virginia Education Secretary Laura Fornash said limiting the adjuncts' credit hours wasn't what McDonnell's administration wanted, either. Adjunct instructors teach at least two-thirds of the classes for the statewide enrollment of nearly 289,000 students.
"This is a tremendous challenge for the commonwealth since the IRS has yet to issue guidance for us," she said. "The governor had to act and take responsibility and make sure the parameters were clear as we understand the requirements of the law."
Heavy course loads like Hubbard's, Fornash said, are the exception, not the rule. Three-fourths of community college adjuncts teach fewer than 27 credit hours a year anyway, many of them augmenting full-time jobs in other fields.
"You might have an accountant by day who teaches a section or two of accounting at night," she said.
None of which comforts Hubbard, who worked her way through undergraduate and graduate school and her unfinished doctoral program tending bar and waiting tables, all so she could one day teach history. These days, arthritic hands rule out a moonlight job bartending, she said.
"As you know, finding work is difficult. If I can find something full-time, then I'd have to give up teaching and I really don't want to do that," Hubbard said.