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Saving for retirement isn’t simple when earning poverty wages: The old adage of spend less and save more doesn’t cut it for adjuncts

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It’s National Save for Retirement Week, a time when financial services industry experts offer Americans conventional advice for preparing for their golden years. However, saving for retirement isn’t as simple as these people would have you believe.

A growing number of Americans are struggling just to get by—let alone save for retirement. I should know; I’m one of them. There’s no such thing as a retirement for me.

As an adjunct professor, my wages are so low that I haven’t been saving for retirement.  I’ll be working until they carry me out of my job. That’s what makes retirement terrifying for me.

Many of my colleagues around the country share my fears and retirement prospects.

Nearly a third of part-time faculty at our nation’s colleges and universities are living near, at or below the poverty line.

The old adage of spend less and save more doesn’t apply to us.

Although I’ve been teaching writing and literature at small Vermont colleges for more than 35 years, this year I will only earn $10,000. This makes it difficult to save for retirement or anything else. With the help of my modest Social Security income (which is about $900 a month) I just purchased my first home—a mobile home—last year. I’m 67 years old.

You see, saving for retirement isn’t as simple as opening an IRA at your local bank or diversifying your portfolio when you’re an adjunct instructor. In fact, this advice isn’t applicable to many working Americans in today’s economy.

Wealthy corporations have pushed down employee wages and benefits making it harder for the average person to save for retirement. They have also eliminated the pension plans that our parents and grandparents fought for decades ago.

As a result, the availability of retirement savings is often tied to income for today’s workers who have fewer savings options than previous generations. Nearly half of working-age households do not own any retirement account assets. Those of us who aren’t earning the big bucks are unlikely to have a retirement account. Those who do have retirement accounts have virtually no money in them.

According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households.

If the financial services industry wants to help more working families prepare for retirement, it should acknowledge the old advice isn’t working.

Times are changing and so is my profession. Adjuncts around the country are standing together and forming unions to get better pay and benefits. We’re even winning retirement benefits for adjuncts, including those at my job, who didn’t have access to our employer’s plan.

I’m also hopeful that our approach to retirement planning will change too.  Several states around the country have begun to address the retirement security crisis faced by low income families by creating plans for people who don’t have access to one at work.

Plans like the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program would help many adjuncts around the country achieve a simple, dignified retirement after lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules. Hopefully, Vermont lawmakers will pass a similar bill soon.

Also, more lawmakers need to do more to make it easier for our nation’s educators to retire by expanding Social Security to increase benefits.  After all, teachers do very important work.

This article was originally printed on SEIU.org in October 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Sharyn Layfield is an adjunct professor at St Michael’s College in Vermont.

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Town Hall Unites Adjunct Faculty, Launches Network

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seiu-org-logoAdjunct faculty joined SEIU president Mary Kay Henry and House Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) to launch the Adjunct Action Network and talk about the future of adjunct faculty organizing at a town hall at Georgetown University today.

“Imagine if brick-by-brick adjuncts work to build a new model,” Henry said as she led a discussion about how the growing adjunct organizing victories from Los Angeles to Boston can be leveraged into even larger movement both online and offline.

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Though adjunct faculty often lack physical meeting space on the campuses where they work, adjuncts have formed a virtual network that crosses cities and campuses. The Adjunct Action Network’s toolset, which gives users the ability to create petitions, host events, build email lists and create online discussion groups, is designed to elevate those connections to concerted action. Click here to sign up to the network and watch a recorded version of the town hall.

Adjunct faculty in attendance described how collective action by contingent faculty has given them a larger voice in the fight to roll back the corporatization of higher education and refocus it on education and students. “I think we can really rumble and quake the higher education ground,” said Tiffany Kraft, an adjunct from Clark College who spoke on the panel at the town hall. “We are not passive victims in our marginalization,” she added.

“There’s plenty of money in higher education. It’s just not being directed at front-line teaching,” Henry noted.

Rep. Miller said the growing influence of adjunct faculty is altering the power calculus in politics and higher education back towards students and instruction, and urged adjuncts to continue to organize and engage. “Bring your lunch,” and stay for the fight, he said to applause.

The town hall comes as adjuncts continue to organize across the country. In late February, adjunct faculty at Lesley University in Boston voted overwhelmingly to form a union. In the last few months adjuncts at Seattle University in Washington state, Howard University in DC, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Northeastern University in Boston have filed election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.
Tufts University part-time faculty voted to join SEIU in September 2013 and are currently bargaining their first contract, and in December, adjunct faculty at Whittier College in Los Angeles voted to form a union.

For a compilation of live reaction to the town hall, follow #AdjunctNetwork.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on March 24, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Mariah Quinn

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