The sad case of Margaret Mary, professor of the working poor

gownWho are the “working poor”? They’re not who you might think.  Well, they are, but in addition to the stereotypical image—a person working in drudgery at a lowly paid and insecure non-skilled job with no hope of dragging themselves out of it—is another, largely forgotten by governments and media alike.

The hidden working poor in western countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US, include some of our most highly skilled, highly educated professionals. One of those professions is tertiary education. You probably don’t realise that more than 50%—and in some cases up to 75%—of the academic staff at the uni you or your children study at are paid on hourly rates for what is clearly not a casual job, and for little more than half the year.

On paper, the hourly rates look quite good. But not if you factor in actual hours worked, the high amount of extra unpaid work required, the fact that you don’t get paid if you are sick or have to take any other leave, or if your rostered hours fall on a public holiday, that you receive no holiday pay, no security, and that employment is available for only 30 weeks or less a year. I know all about this, because I’m one of them; for six years, my primary employment has been as an academic on sessional or short-term contracts.

This post was inspired by a very sad story this week, posted by my friend Jane on Facebook. “Death of an adjunct”, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 18, told of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who worked as an “adjunct professor” (a “sessional academic” in Australia) of French at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania for 25 years.

She was being treated for cancer and had huge medical bills. She was penniless and mortified about being in such reduced circumstances that protective services authorities had threatened to take her into care. She died on September 1 at the age of 83, after a heart attack.

She had recently been fired from her job, and when she was contacted by Adult Protective Services demanding she meet them to discuss her dire situation, she called Daniel Kovalik to intervene. He is the senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union (more about that below).  Kovalik wrote her story for the Post Gazette, and I’ll let him continue here:

“I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.

“Of course, what the caseworker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 per cent of the faculty at colleges and universities…”

Kovalik says the most she could earn, when teaching three classes a semester and two over summer, earned her less than $25,000 a year net, with no health care benefits. Then she became ill and had to cut back on classes, earning less than $10,000 a year. She could no longer afford electricity. Kovalik continues:

“She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

“Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor — despite many glowing evaluations from students.”

If you want to read more about Margaret Mary, there’s a link to Kovalik’s story here.

Now, Duquesne University is the largest Catholic University in Pennsylvania and has 10,000 students. On its website, Duquesne says its staff “are the catalyst behind the University’s growth and prosperity. The University’s remarkable advances in higher education, technology and research are a testament to their hard work and drive.”

I think of Margaret Mary and know there is something wrong with those website claims. A line from Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Her story went viral this week, and a follow-up on Inside Higher Ed explains that when Duquesne adjuncts voted to join the United Steelworkers Union last year, they were blocked by legal action taken by the university on the grounds it should be exempt from labour laws because it was a religious organisation.

In Australia, there are many people in the same situation as Margaret Mary. Every year in November, tens of thousands of academics across Australia brace themselves for the long, lean times ahead with no pay at all until the semester starts again at the end of February or beginning of March—and that’s if they get a job at all. They often don’t know until a couple of weeks or even days before the semester starts. Mid-year, it’s the same, though not as long a break.

Some find casual jobs working at supermarkets or homeware superstores, waiting tables, or perhaps the very lucky ones might get some shifts at a book shop. Many just hunker down for the lean summer months—at least they won’t have to pay for heating—and wish away their well-deserved break.

Of course, academia is not the only area of mass casualisation. I use it as a case study to point out this growing problem of “working poor”. It is short sighted in the extreme: it means so many more people in the future will be reliant on welfare to survive. Or, they will just work until they die.

This is particularly so of single people who don’t have any other person’s income to help with expenses or to cover the lean times. Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to several of my friends, women in their 40s and 50s, who are terrified of what their financial future holds because they can’t find a permanent job.

The New Zealand Listener magazine this year focused on this mass casualisation in a story about “the rise of the precariat class and the end of the golden era of work” (by Karl du Fresne, May 18-24, 2013). The term “precariat”, a portmanteau of “precarious proletariat”, was coined by the British economist Guy Standing in his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011). Initially, it referred to people in unskilled casual jobs, with little education and no prospects. The article, which you can read here, said that in New Zealand—and I’m widening that to Australia as well—the term had morphed to include many well educated people in skilled jobs and professions.

Those in the precariat, according to the article, include accountants, air crew, government employees, and educators at all levels from pre-school teachers to university lecturers.

We will probably never go back to the era when a job meant full-time employment and entitlements. But as a society, we need to think more deeply about sustainable patterns of work and employment.  What we have at the moment is just not good enough.