Adjuncts & Walmart Workers

A recently renovated Walmart store in Clinton,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The September, 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured an infographic comparing working at Walmart with working as an adjunct/contingent faculty member.  Having worked as an adjunct, I can attest to the accuracy of the claims regarding the adjunct experience.

In the usual order of things, a college degree provides a higher earning potential. This is not, however, true for the typical adjuncts. In the United States, a retail cashier makes an average of $9.13 an hour, resulting in a yearly income of $20,410. By way of comparison, Goldman Sachs’ health  coverage for a higher end employee (such as Ted Cruz’s wife) amounts to almost twice that amount. An adjunct who is working 40 hours a week will make on average $16,200 a year (which is $7.78 per hour). Running a cash register sometimes requires a high school degree, but not always. Being an adjunct typically requires having a graduate degree and many of them have doctorates. I did and I made $16,000 my first year as an adjunct. That was teaching four classes a semester for two semesters. Adjuncts generally do not get any benefits, although some of them do get insurance coverage—as graduate students. I had health insurance as a graduate student (at a very low rate) but not as an adjunct—fortunately I had no serious injuries and only minor illnesses during my insurance free time. If I had had my quadriceps tendon tear when I was an adjunct, it would have cost me almost $12,000—leaving me only $4,000 for the year (less after taxes).

The typical workers for corporations like Walmart tend to be no better off—they do not get much (or any) benefits and hence often do not have health care coverage. It might be wondered how people survive on such low wages and with no benefits. In some cases, people simply do without. When I was an adjunct, I did not have a car, I bought only what food I could afford, I lived in a one bedroom apartment and did all I could to live frugally. I do admit that I splurged on luxuries like running shoes and race entry fees. Fortunately, I did make some extra money writing—which helped support my gaming hobby.

This approach can work for a person who has no dependents, can get by without a vehicle, and has no health issues. However, those who cannot do the obvious: they turn to the state for aid. In the case of Walmart, the taxpayers provide support to their employees. For example, in the state of Wisconsin Walmart employees cost the taxpayers $9.8 million a year in Medicaid benefits alone. Adjuncts would also often qualify for state support. Out of Yankee pride, I did not avail myself of any such aid—I could survive on what I was making, albeit at a relatively low quality of life in Western terms. However, many people do not have the luxury of pride—they need to care for their families or address health issues.

As might be imagined, these low salaries and lack of benefits are a point of concern. Laying aside concerns about fairness of wages (which actually should not be done), there is the fact that the low pay of many workers is subsidized by the taxpayers. That is, the taxpayers pick up the difference between what the employers pay and what people need to survive. As I have argued before, this is a form of corporate and university socialism: the state support allows schools and corporations to pay low wages and thus generate greater profits. Or, in the case of non-profit schools, funnel the money elsewhere—most likely to administration and things like bonuses for the university president. For example, the previous president of my university was guaranteed a yearly bonus that that was about twice the average yearly adjunct salary.

Obamacare is supposed to, in some degree, shift the burden of health care costs from the taxpayer to the employer. The idea is that larger employers will need to provide health care benefits to full time employees or pay a fine. This, as might be imagined, has caused some people to threaten dire consequences. To be specific, some employers, including universities, have stated that they will reduce employee hours so that they fall just under the line for full time employment. Some have even threatened to fire people on the grounds that they cannot afford to pay.

One stock counter to the idea that employers should provide such benefits is that the state has no right to impose such costs on businesses, especially when doing so will cause businesses to fire people and cut their hours. This does have some appeal. However, there is still the question of who will provide the workers with the resources they need to survive.

One view is that the employers have an obligation to provide a living wage to those who do their job and do it competently. Few would argue that an employer is obligated to just hand people money for not working or doing terrible work—after all, a person who can earn his way should do so. As might be imagined, many employers (including universities) would rather not do this. After all, increasing wages to an actual living wage would cut into profits. In the case of universities, such increases would mean cuts in other areas of the budget (but surely not presidential bonuses).

Another view is that private citizens or organizations of private citizens (such as church groups) have the obligation to provide assistance to others via charity. That is, individuals should voluntarily subsidize the employers by providing the employees with the resources they need to survive, such as food. Of course, if private citizens have this obligation, it would seem that the employers (being citizens as well) would also have this obligation. One clever way around this is to contend that corporations are people, just not the sort of people who have moral obligations. Obviously, people do provide such support—but it would certainly be a challenge for private citizens to adequately support all the working people whose wages are not adequate.

A third view is that the state has the obligation to provide the resources for people to survive. This is, for the most part, the current situation. However, since the state gets most of its income from the citizens, this is effectively having private citizens subsidizing the employers, only with the state organizing the charity. Once again, if the state is obligated to do this, this merely comes down to the citizens having this obligation.

A fourth option is that no one has an obligation to provide people with the resources they need to survive, even when those people are actually working full time and generating enough value to allow their employer to pay them living wages. One might make references to the morality nullifying powers of the free-market: while people might have moral obligations, these do not hold in economic relations. One might also reject the idea that people have any such moral obligations to others at all: people must make it on their own or perish, unless someone freely decides to provide assistance.

Overall, it comes down to the question of what, if anything, people owe to each other. My own view is that the market does not nullify morality and that we do have obligations to each other. These obligations include an obligation to not allow other people to suffer or die simply because others are unwilling to pay them a fair, living wage. To head off the usual attacks, I am not claiming that able and competent people should simply be handed resources earned by the toil of others for doing nothing. Rather, my view is about fair wages and ethical behavior. This is why I am against both just handing people stuff for nothing and for people profiting off the labor of others. Both are cases of people who are getting the value of others’ work and not earning the value themselves.

 

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  1. Why doesn’t the NEA Higher Education Advocate catch the universities and colleges who pay so poorly with their pay rates down?

    Some comparisons of interest: what the arts faculty students pay for tuition, what the institution pays its maintenance staff and adjuncts.

    Why would a parent want to send his daughter to a school that pays its teachers $7.78 per hour?

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