Bear with a stethoscope The KidCare missive has become the latest flashpoint for adjuncts at Miami Dade College who are trying to form a union in the face of opposition from administrators. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As adjunct professors in the U.S. make their case for higher pay, one of the biggest U.S. colleges inadvertently brought their financial stress into sharp relief, suggesting that academics apply for Medicaid to cover uninsured children.

Last month a vice provost of Florida’s Miami Dade College, a sprawling community college that says it awards more two-year degrees than any other, sent an email to the school’s thousands of adjunct professors with the subject line “Does Your Child have Insurance?”

“If your answer is ‘No’ to your child having insurance or you are having trouble covering your child’s insurance premiums, Florida KidCare might be able to help,” the email said, referring strapped teachers to a suite of state-funded insurance programs that includes Medicaid.

Related: Who are America’s uninsured?

The KidCare missive has become the latest flashpoint for adjuncts who are trying to form a union in the face of opposition from administrators. Leaders of the effort accused the school of hypocrisy, saying it’s disingenuous to steer teachers toward Medicaid while fighting their efforts to bargain collectively for better benefits. “You can’t say on the one hand ‘Everything is fine,’ and on the other hand say, ‘If your kids need health care, utilize this,” said Alphonso Mayfield, president of the Florida Public Services Union, a Service Employees International Union affiliate.

In a series of emails to employees, the school’s management has argued against unionizing, telling the teachers that forming a union may not protect the perks they currently have. Miami Dade declined to answer questions about emails to teachers, but spokesman Juan Mendieta said in an email that the school’s adjunct professors “do not need the SEIU, as their current direct relationship with the College already provides them the best benefits in the State.” He also questioned the motives of the labor group, saying that its campaigns for a $15 minimum wage and lower tuition would not “help the adjuncts” and that its “motivation is clearly about generating dues/money” for itself.

The Miami Dade campaign is part of a wave of on-campus organizing by SEIU and other unions, which say colleges and universities are trying to save money by leaning on temporary and contract instructors. So-called contingent faculty such as adjuncts now make up most of the instructors at U.S. colleges and universities, according to a 2017 study by the American Institutes for Research and the TIAA Institute. Average annual pay for part-time faculty is $21,453; only a tiny fraction of institutions guarantee part-timers benefits, according to a survey released last year by the American Association of University Professors.

“Adjunct professors in the U.S. are in many ways the fast-food workers of academia, given the tremendous economic precarity so many face,” said Rebecca Vallas, a vice president at the Center for American Progress who spearheads antipoverty policy for the liberal think tank. While Medicaid is a “vital program,” she said, its existence “is no substitute for colleges and other employers to provide their employees with economic stability and adequate benefits including health insurance.”

“We’re providing most of the product, and yet we’re really not being treated as a high priority or with the respect that we deserve,” said Ximena Barrientos, a 57 year-old Miami Dade earth science adjunct. She has a Harvard Ph.D. and teaches three or four classes each semester, she said. Last year she earned less than $20,000 teaching there and has no health insurance. The school’s suggestion to pursue KidCare was “insulting,” Barrientos said. “Instead, they should be talking about what they can do to better our situation.”

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