In early June, California labor regulators ruled that a driver for Uber, the app-based car service, was, in fact, an employee, not an independent contractor, and deserved back pay. The decision made national news, with experts predicting a coming flood of lawsuits. Two weeks later, FedEx agreed to a $288 million settlement after a federal appeals court ruled that the company had shortchanged 2,300 California delivery drivers on pay and benefits by improperly labeling them as independent contractors. The next month, the company lost another case in a federal appeals court over misclassifying 500 delivery drivers in Kansas. Meanwhile, since January, trucking firms operating out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have lost two major court battles with drivers who claim that they, too, have been robbed of wages by being misclassified as independent contractors.
If you think you notice a pattern here, you're right. After years of inertia, courts and regulators are starting to take on companies that miscategorize employees as contractors in order to avoid wage and benefit costs. With inequality and the declining middle class becoming major issues in the 2016 presidential race, politicians (at least on the Democratic side) are now also vowing to do something about the plight of contingent workers. "I'll crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors or even steal their wages," Hillary Clinton said in her big economic policy speech in July.
The ranks of this "contingent workforce"--defined as temporary and part-time workers and independent contractors--have been growing for decades. From 2006 to 2010, their numbers swelled from 35.3 percent of the employed to 40.4 percent, according to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This trend isn't altogether bad. Plenty of part-timers, freelancers, and contractors prefer the freedom that comes from itinerant and independent work. And such work is often the result of innovations that lower barriers to entry in otherwise closed markets--the way Uber's app, for instance, allows amateurs with cars to compete with licensed taxi drivers and owners. The problem is that such arrangements can lead to exploitation: in their winning lawsuit, for example, the California FedEx drivers complained that the company shifted hundreds of millions of dollars in costs onto them, from buying and maintaining their FedEx-branded trucks to following FedEx schedules that didn't allow for meal breaks and overtime. Not surprisingly, contingent workers in general report lower job satisfaction, lower pay per hour, and fewer fringe benefits than workers in the same industries with more traditional employment, according to the GAO.
Less-skilled workers--truck drivers, hotel maids, office temps--typically bear the brunt of these contingent arrangements, but the practice is also moving into the professional classes. Thanks to a glut of law school grads and a slumping legal business, the number of attorneys working part-time has grown from 2.4 percent in 1994 to 6.1 percent in 2013. Other educated professions, from architecture to mainstream journalism, have seen similar shifts.
Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.
Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. Unlike the legal and the traditional news industries, higher education has been booming in recent years. Nor does higher ed seem to follow the pattern of other industries being transformed by contingent employment. In his book The Fissured Workplace, David Weil of the Boston University School of Management (and currently the administrator of the U.S. Wage and Hour Division in the U.S. Department of Labor) writes that the growth of contingent employment is being driven mostly by firms focusing on their core businesses and outsourcing the rest of the work to contractors. But teaching students is--or at least is supposed to be--the core mission of higher education. That colleges and universities have turned more and more of their frontline employees into part-time contractors suggests how far they have drifted from what they say they are all about (teaching students) to what they are increasingly all about (conducting research, running sports franchises, or, among for-profits, delivering shareholder value).
To be sure, the old tenure system has its problems, and the rise of the contingent professoriate has its advantages--chief among them allowing fresh teaching talent into the higher education system, often people with more real-world experience than the regular faculty. The problem is that universities are using their power in ways that shortchange both contingent teachers and, ultimately, students. With courts and politicians increasingly questioning the fairness and legality of contingent work in industries like transportation, institutions of higher learning could soon be facing scrutiny, too.
Some trace the practice of hiring part-time instructors to a time when most schools didn't allow women as full professors, and thus adjunct positions were associated with female instructors from the start. Eileen Schell, author of Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, notes that these contingent faculty members were referred to as "the housewives of higher education." My parents lived out that exact paradigm. Both professors, my father was full-time and tenured and my mother was originally tenure track until a move accompanying my fa ther got her only a non-tenured position as an "instructor" as part of a "package" created to lure my father to Stanford. There my mother worked with a cohort of part-time faculty wives who were given little respect and even less in wages. Women still make up the majority of contingent teachers, with estimates as high as 61 percent (by contrast, 59 percent of full-time tenured faculty are men).
A neighbor of mine, Mitch Tropin, teaches at six different colleges in the D.C. area. Through a combination of perseverance and good karma, he has been able to align his three Baltimore schools so he teaches there on the same days, allowing him to minimize commuting time. He always aims for employment at six schools because, he says, "You never know when a class will be canceled or a full-time professor will bump you at the last minute. Sometimes classes just disappear." Another D.C. adjunct, Tanya Paperny, who doesn't have a car, has done her commute by bike and public transportation, making her days stretch to thirteen hours.
To say that these are low-wage jobs is an understatement. Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Known as the "Homeless Prof," Mary-Faith Cerasoli teaches romance languages and prepares her courses in friends' apartments when she can crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends can't take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she responded, "Sure, it's the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue."
Naomi Winterfalcon, who teaches at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, is happy that she was able to get another job this year and stay off food stamps for the summer. Insultingly, the college gave teachers a flyer, she told me, that said, "Adjuncts, you do get benefits-if you bring your own mug you get coffee and you get 10 percent discounts at the bookstore." A recent study shows that a large portion of universities and colleges limit their adjuncts' teaching hours to avoid having to provide the health insurance now required for full-timers under the Affordable Care Act.
But apart from feeling sorry for the underpaid faculty, why should we care that college professors have the same job conditions as day laborers, fast-food workers, cashiers, taxi drivers, or home care aides? They did, after all, choose to pursue a career in higher ed. Administrators at these institutions of higher learning argue that they need to use adjuncts because it is the only way to keep tuition from rising even faster than it has. And isn't access to education the higher good?
If the rationale for using low-wage professorial labor is affordable college, however, it hasn't worked. Tuition increases inspire awe at their size--public universities cost three times what they cost in 1980, private universities twice as much. As universities have added amenities like squash courts and luxury dorms, their spending has increased threefold, but the student-teacher ratio remains the same as it was in the past. If you think these tuition increases resulted from an investment in providing a better education for the students in the classroom, consider the growth in administrative staff and administrative pay.
Even while keeping funding for instruction relatively flat, universities increased the number of administrator positions by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate at which they added tenured positions. In the old days, different professors would take their turn as dean for this or that and then happily escape back to scholarship and teaching. Now the administration exists as an end in itself and a career path disconnected from the faculty and pursuit of knowledge. Writing a few years ago for this publication, the Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg described colleges and...