Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Phantom Policy

A Californian correspondent writes:

  I work at a California community college in two different positions.  I hold a permanent 75% staff position and last semester I was hired to teach as an adjunct faculty member as well (I'm fully qualified for both positions).  There is one other person on campus who does the same thing and he has carried out both roles with no conflict for at least 2 years, and so my hiring was based on that precedent.  The only limitation HR ever informed us of was that we could not exceed a 40 hour work week between our teaching and staff duties, and we abided by this.
  At the end of the semester the Dean of HR informed my academic dean that I could no longer teach for the college due to a "union conflict" (my college has separate unions for staff and faculty).  I became highly suspicious of this when I found out that neither of my union representatives have identified any conflict, the policy is not being applied to the aforementioned staff member,  and the Faculty HR Specialist has never heard of such a policy.  I was referred to one of our college's former HR employees who has a great deal of information (and personal experience) regarding the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.  This woman has informed me that the law is that if I am carrying out a 75% staff position then I can still legally teach a 25% faculty load.  She also forwarded this information to the Dean of HR.
  I emailed the Dean of HR to inform him about my concerns and he replied offering to meet with me to "discuss the college's position on the matter;" however, when I replied requesting such a meeting, he never got back to me.  It is now almost 2 months later and he has not returned my emails or phone calls.  When I have stopped by the HR office he is unavailable.  I spoke with my academic dean about the situation and she is completely willing to reinstate me as a faculty member as soon as she gets the okay from HR (she has been unable to find any other qualified adjuncts and my evaluations were glowing).  Complicating the situation, it was just announced that starting next month the Dean of HR would be taking a leave of absence to assume an interim position at another college (and possibly leaving for good), with no mention of who would be assuming his duties.  I am hesitant to speak to the HR Manager (the second in command) due to her history of giving grossly inaccurate information to employees (myself included).
  Do I have the right to fight this (I know as an adjunct my rights are limited)?  Can the college fabricate a policy and selectively enforce it?  Should I bother with the current Dean of HR or try arguing my point through another avenue?  In any case, what might my options be?

First, a disclaimer: I don't live or work in California, and I've never worked for any of the California community colleges. The California system is famously bizarre – almost to the point of being entirely self-contained – so there may be state-specific quirks of which I'm unaware. Readers who know that system well are especially invited to comment.

That said, I'll take issue with the parenthetical that “I know as an adjunct my rights are limited.” That's not entirely true. You have rights to non-discriminatory treatment, for example. It's entirely possible that the college has some asinine policies, and that you may legitimately fall victim to them. But if you do, it shouldn't be unique to you; the same should happen to anyone in an analogous circumstance.

(I've noticed that a great many grievances hang on whether different situations are sufficiently analogous. This is where 'judgment calls' and 'gray areas' become very real.)

If you have colleagues whose situations are like yours, but who aren't being covered by this alleged policy, then you absolutely have the right to challenge it.

The HR director's leave of absence for an interim position is a glowing red flag. In my observation, the only time that happens for administrative positions is when somebody is being pushed out. I've seen leaves of absences for other reasons – medical, usually – but they don't involve taking on new full-time jobs. New full-time interim jobs are even weirder. This smells like change in the making.

The evasiveness of the HR office also lends itself to this interpretation. If it were simply enforcing an established policy, it shouldn't need two months to find the policy. (The “union issue” line is less worrisome, only because I've seen admins use “union” synonymously with “contract.” They could have meant “contract issue,” in which case I wouldn't be surprised if your union hadn't heard about it.) You might want to ask your sympathetic department chair to put in a call to HR for clarification, and see if they're any more responsive to her. (I'm guessing not, but hope springs eternal.)

If your primary position (or your adjunct position, for that matter) is unionized, then you have an obvious avenue for filing a grievance. At the very least, it would force the college to provide some sort of answer. It's illegal to retaliate against employees for grievances, so you shouldn't be putting yourself at any undue risk. (I say 'shouldn't,' rather than 'wouldn't,' because it's an imperfect world. If it were up to me, there'd be a quota on frivolous grievances, but that's another discussion.) Best case, the college might realize that it had made a mistake while it was distracted by other personnel drama. Worst case, the college has engaged in selective enforcement, which is a huge and fundamental no-no.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add (or correct)?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.