"It's Caused a Lot of Havoc": As CA Film Schools Reclassify Part-Time Professors, Wage Lawsuits Ramp Up

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At several universities with strong Hollywood ties, adjuncts have become hourly workers, with some saying the move short-changes students and undercuts staffers "who are being underpaid and to some degree underused."

Anne Beatts was teaching screenwriting one day in November 2019 when her phone pinged with a text from a friend, a fellow part-time professor at Orange County's Chapman University. "Call me when you can, that law I was telling you about is going to affect interterm. I just found out," the text read.

When the TV writer-producer (with credits including writing on Saturday Night Live and creating the '80s comedy Square Pegs) and Dodge College of Film and Media Arts lecturer got out of class, she learned that a bill that aimed to make most California adjunct professors salaried employees had been vetoed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Beatts' friend suspected that the veto would affect their work situation, but didn't have any additional information. Sure enough, when Beatts met that afternoon with the interim chair of the school's film department, she learned that following the bill's demise, Chapman would convert its part-time professors, commonly called "adjunct" professors, into hourly workers on Jan. 1, 2020.

The change was made to keep the university in line with California labor law and, theoretically, at least, to pay adjunct professors for all the hours they work. And the reclassification came with a slight pay bump for most, a nice incentive to deal with the headache of logging in- and out-of-class hours. (Benefits weren't affected because adjunct professors don't typically receive benefits.) But soon, Beatts learned her hours would be cut in half for the upcoming "interterm," a four-week, short term between the fall and spring semesters: She would have to teach her interterm class in half the time and, with the new pay bump, for about two-thirds the pay — in prior years, Beatts made an entire semester's salary during interterm. The solution to the adjunct issue had some problems, she learned: "To me, this has just kind of exposed the problem with the whole system, which is that colleges are being basically underpinned [by] adjuncts," she says. "It’s reached a tipping point in terms of trying to maintain this system with people who are being underpaid and to some degree underused."

Chapman, the alma mater of Bad Hair director Justin Simien and Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer, isn't the only university with a prominent film school that has reclassified part-time professors as hourly employees in recent months. Loyola Marymount University, whose School of Film and Television graduated Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, also made the change at the start of its fall 2019 semester, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. USC's School of Dramatic Arts reclassified its part-time professors a few years ago; faculty remain part-time, salaried workers at private schools including the American Film Institute, Otis College of Art and Design and ArtsCenter. CalArts, whose part-time professors remain exempt, is currently "exploring options" for part-time professors, its president, Ravi Rajan, tells THR.

The bumpy road to reclassifying these workers has exposed the difficulty of quantifying the work of an instructor, especially one working on creative projects. And the current solution pursued by some schools — reclassifying part-time professors as non-salaried employees — is far from a perfect fit, both from the perspective of part-timers and administrators.

While part-time professors have for years alleged poor pay and long hours, recent reclassifications of part-time professors in California follow a series of wage-and-hour lawsuits filed since 2016. Private, nonprofit schools in California, including Stanford University, LMU, The University of San Diego, Point Loma Nazarene University and California Lutheran University, along with for-profits The Art Institute of California's San Diego campus — which is now shuttered — and San Joaquin Valley College, have all been named in lawsuits that claim part-time professors haven't been paid for all hours worked or been given meal or rest breaks, among other charges. (Public universities haven't been affected because their adjunct employees are typically unionized.) Many of these suits have been brought by Julian Hammond, founder of HammondLaw, P.C., a practice in Beverly Hills: "The number [of suits] has increased," Hammond tells THR, but he won't say much more about his business representing part-time professors.

"Contingent" (non-tenure-track) roles currently account for 73 percent of all instructional positions at U.S. universities and remain prevalent in film and television programs, which typically seek out working professionals to attract students. According to Chapman University provost Glenn Pfeiffer, part-time faculty teach about 25 percent of classes at the institution, with that percentage varying by school. Of the 73 faculty members listed in LMU's SFTV faculty, 23 members, or 32 percent, are classified as "lecturers" or "senior lecturers," both part-time positions. "The reason we use part-time faculty is to expose our students to those working artists and the specificity of what they can offer, and they are the best in their field," CalArts' president Rajan says of his school's part-time employees. "If that means that the best person can only offer a part-time thing, then we want that thing."

Some universities theoretically have skirted California labor law in the past with their part-time professors by failing to meet one requirement of keeping an employee "exempt" — salaried — in California: Employees must be paid over $54,080 at companies with 26 or more workers to be exempt. Though exceptions exist, "The argument goes, look, part-time, adjunct professor, you aren't being paid a salary of [nearly] $55,000 a year on a weekly basis and thus you can't be exempt," says Davis Wright Tremaine labor lawyer Aaron Colby. The average pay for a part-time professor for a three-credit course is $3,894 a semester, according to the American Association of University Professors' 2018-2019 compensation survey, meaning that professors would make $23,364 a year before taxes if they teach three courses a semester (professors at universities across Southern California who spoke with THR teach between one to four courses a semester).

In response to the volume of lawsuits against universities, last year California Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin introduced the bill AB 1466 alongside part-time professors union SEIU California and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. AB 1466 aimed to make many part-time faculty members salaried workers with a threshold minimum salary. The bill passed in the California Assembly and Senate with bipartisan support but was vetoed in October of last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who explained it "could have unintended consequences for a significant number of workers, including creating a substandard wage rate for instructional employees." (Irwin disputes this characterization: "The majority of professors would see an increase in their salary" if the bill passed, she says.) Irwin, undeterred, is reintroducing a modified version of the earlier bill, with language that reflects conversations with the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, in the bill AB 736 this year.

But as AB 736 makes its way through the legislative process, part-time professors at Chapman and LMU are adjusting to a strange new normal. At Chapman, part-time professors' sudden reclassification overturned plans for their interterm courses, which instructors had already started advertising to students, given that their allotted hours for class time were halved. In previous years, some interterm courses met for six hours two times a week, some for four hours three times a week. But according to their new university contracts, part-time professors and the university must "agree that it is not intended by either party" to work more than eight hours in a work day or 19.5 hours in a week. Overtime pay is only allowed if an employee obtains permission from the school's dean beforehand. (Under California labor law, hourly employees must be paid overtime rates for any work that exceeds eight hours in a day and 40 hours in a week. Employers are allowed to prohibit overtime for workers.)

In a conversation that took place after interterm ended and Beatts had received her student evaluations, she says, "a lot of the students said the class should meet on more days." Beatts adds that adjunct faculty are now being told they can only work nine-week "summer sessions" at the school, which are either six or nine weeks and take place over the summer.

Another Dodge College professor, who preferred to remain anonymous, called and sent emails to Gov. Newsom's office when she learned of her reclassification and its decrease of interterm pay for part-time professors. "I said in my email to him that 'The very thing you said you vetoed it for is what you caused, substandard pay,'" she says. "It's caused a lot of havoc."

Chapman University provost Pfeiffer counters that interterm hours being cut "only really affected a small number of people," he says, estimating that 10 percent of part-time faculty work interterm. As for the school's upcoming "summer sessions," part-time professors' hours may be affected, he adds, but the changes will "be a lot less severe and affect fewer people." He says that along with reclassification, the school attempted to improve pay for all part-time professors and removed a difference in pay between part-time professors with a PhD and those without — as a result, some part-timers received an up to 25 percent increase in their per-semester rates.

Another source of friction for part-time professors at Chapman is that they are contracted to start being paid just one week before the start of term under the new system. After the reclassification was announced, professors had to transform their planned courses for interterm, which, for some, took longer than one week to accomplish. One part-time professor who worked at Chapman until the spring 2020 semester was also surprised by the lack of consideration for teachers tackling new classes, or classes that are new to them during regular semesters. "If you're really going to change me to hourly, you need to be paying me tons of money up front to develop a curriculum. Do you want me to just whip up a new class in the week prior? Is that the bar?" he says. (The reclassification was a factor in his decision to leave the school.)

Pfeiffer says in response to these concerns that the Chapman employment period "is sort of the standard [part-time] contract, but we want to compensate people for all the hours they work." Professors should report all hours they work and continue to seek pre-approval for overtime, he adds. Still, he admits that the new hourly process is an imperfect system and therefore supports AB 736: "I hope that this bill [AB 736] passes because it will give us a little bit of flexibility with things like interterm and summer terms, where we have more time constraint involved in teaching the class."

Like at Chapman University, LMU part-time professors who spoke with THR said they received a slight bump to their per-semester salary when their reclassification took effect at the start of the fall 2019 semester. Under the new system at LMU, part-time professors are limited to working an individualized, estimated number of hours per week (their in-class hours plus their in-class hours multiplied by 3.5 hours of out-of-class work) unless they secure pre-approval to work more hours; overtime is also not allowed without pre-approval. Brian Moss, a senior lecturer at LMU's department of fine arts, says that due to the reclassification, he places more value on his own labor. "It just made [me] more aware of how much time I worked, and it kind of forced me to say, 'You know, I did my 27 hours for this week for my 2-3 unit classes and I'm done.'" He adds, "If that's what the school is asking for, that's what they're going to get."

As a result of their strict weekly work-hour limit, part-time LMU professors have also been instructed that they cannot attend extracurricular school activities without prior approval. In an "FAQs" document sent to faculty and reviewed by THR, professors were told they could no longer attend "college/school/university events," serve on committees, attend conferences or "other professional organization events" on or off-campus for their LMU work, perform course activities off-campus or participate in alternative spring break programs or study abroad programs without prior approval.

One professor in the photography department who preferred to remain anonymous and has worked on several unpaid independent studies with students over the years — an activity that is now prohibited — argues that the changes will be "detrimental" to the students. "The students are paying all this money and … they are the big losers in this, and obviously the employers are the winners because they're not paying the salary," she says.

"LMU values its part-time faculty, and offers competitive pay and benefits for those employees," Loyola Marymount said in a statement. 

USC School for Dramatic Arts adjunct lecturer Debra De Liso, who has worked at the school for 18 years and was reclassified as an hourly worker a few years ago, has a similar perspective on the reclassification. "I really started putting thought into all the hours that I work and realized that I'm not getting paid for all the hours that I work" as a result of the change, she says. "There's these clauses [in our contract that say] you can’t work eight hours a day, and on tech days, while I don't have that many in a semester, I have easily worked 12 or more hours. I started just being a little bit more aware that I wasn’t being valued as much." USC did not respond to THR's requests for comment.

Concern about filling out time cards inaccurately was a common refrain among reclassified professors who spoke with THR. Some professors at one school claimed that administrators encouraged them to fudge their estimated weekly number of hours in their time cards to keep their salaries stable. Employers are generally advised to keep accurate time records to guard against wage and hour complaints.

As her latest bill to make most part-time professors salaried workers continues to move through the legislative process, California Assemblymember Irwin imagines that schools that have not yet gone hourly will "end up having these big lawsuits to pay and it's coming out of the pockets of students." She adds, "After the bill got vetoed, three additional schools got sued." AB 736 is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, pending referral to the Labor Committee; the bill has a "urgency clause," which means that, if approved by a two-thirds vote and signed by the governor, it will take effect immediately.

Given the difficulties the bill has faced in the past, CalArts president Rajan, a supporter of AB 1466 and now AB 736, is speaking with legislators to help push the bill through: "It's really important that the legislators pay attention to the needs for workers in this space," he says. "This [reclassification] is coming out of a desire to understand that, but the creative economy doesn't always follow what everybody understands generally in terms of people and their work habits."

Still, even part-time professors at schools that have gone hourly say they are being contacted or advertised by law firm HammondLaw, P.C. with messages stating they may be entitled to lost compensation given past labor practices. "Are you now or have you been an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Marymount University? If so, you may be entitled to compensation for lost wages," a Hammond advertisement on Facebook from Jan. 28 sent to THR reads. A separate HammondLaw email sent to a Chapman University professor after the school's reclassification changes were announced says, "You may be owed unpaid wages based on Chapman's past pay practices, and you may be entitled to statutory penalties of up to $100 per pay wage statement, or actual damages, up to $4,000."