The situation is as follows:

Once upon a time, the university where I have served as an adjunct decided to bring me on in a fixed-term role spanning a single academic year. This was to get them out of a low-manpower bind due to medical and retirement cases with some of our tenured faculty. The idea was a reasonable salary with benefits. So, classes start, and I have no contract. One pay period goes by, then two. Finally my contract comes through after much back-and-forth between the administration--which I'm to understand is heavily associated with our business school--and our department head. Result? Reduced from a single year to a single semester to avoid the benefits package, and reduced pay because they say they cannot retroactively pay someone who didn't have a contract during the intervening time. Given my history with this institution, I'm not at all surprised by this, but this is something of a new low. Yes, it makes good business sense to acquire labor for as cheaply as possible, but it also sends a bad long-term message that I am not valued as an employee. What, if anything, can I do about this?

  • 20
    Would you be willing to quit in the middle of the current semester (since you had originally agreed to something different and the contract that was finally offered to you doesn't match what was discussed)? This threat might be enough to get them to honor their commitment to you. Oct 7, 2015 at 14:12
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    This would seem to be more a question of contract law than of academia, and the answer is probably unique to the local legislature and the individual institution.
    – 410 gone
    Oct 7, 2015 at 14:26
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    We won't be able to help you here. This will depend heavily on the payment you can expect from the rest of the contract, on how much you value continuing goodwill from this institution, on whether you have already signed the contract, on your local employment law etc. Possibilities range from sucking it up, over just walking away to actively suing your employer. I'd assume you'd have a pretty good case if you decide to sue... Oct 7, 2015 at 15:14
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    ... since you presumably saved all the emails in which you were offered this gig and have already worked for them. In many jurisdictions, this is quite sufficient to at least get compensation for the time you have already spent there. Finally, it might be better to ask such a question anonymously - it may be embarrassing if this post appeared in a web search for your name. Oct 7, 2015 at 15:16
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    @JoelDeWitt if they don't recognise what you have done as work worth paying for, you have no obligation to keep working there. Precisely the major disruptions that would bring is a good leverage, and may get you what you want.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 7, 2015 at 15:30

5 Answers 5


First of all, consult a lawyer before doing anything.

If you were to leave in the middle of the course, that will cause havoc, that they won't probably want. Since they are not paying you for the work, you are under no contractual obligation to fulfil anything (but consult the lawyer), and can leave without giving them notice.

Now, you may find unethical to leave your students hanging like this, but the mere threat that you are willing to do it, may get some wheels spinning to give you a decent offer.

Another option to consider is whatever anti-slavery laws apply in your jurisdiction, since you are working for free; and anti fraud, because you are working without a contract. Furthermore, since you don't have a contract, you are not covered by the insurance, and if anything were to happen during your lecture, there is trouble. Think who would have to pay for in case, for example, a projector caught fire and ruined the classroom.

If your oral agreement is considered a contract, you can't do this; but then they would be acknowledging they have to abide by these rules.

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    I actually think that it would be hard to argue that it is unethical to leave the students hanging in this situation. Any hanging that might take place would be entirely the blame of the administration. Maybe the OP is "too kind" to countenance the disruption to the students, but that's really not the same thing. In the long run an organization that does not pay its employees or honor its promises will fold: think of what will happen to the poor students then. Oct 8, 2015 at 5:22
  • I think this answer is written with a bit of a Swedish hat on and does not necessarily apply in full to the OP's situation - for instance, in principle, working for free is as far as I know quite possible in the US. Similarly, not having insurance is per se not illegal afaik. That being said, the general tone is entirely correct - the OP is being ripped off, so the OP should fight back, hard.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 8, 2015 at 14:22
  • @xLeitix not having insurance may be perfectly legal, but someone may have a problem with that; for example, whomever would have to pay for if anything were to happen. I have no idea about working for free, though, but that is one of the first things unions try to abolish, when they can.
    – Davidmh
    Oct 8, 2015 at 15:17

The fact that they did not pay you for two pay periods means that they have committed wage theft in most states in the US. You should go to an employment attorney immediately. You almost certainly have an oral or implied contract, and whatever they are saying about you not having one or "rules" requiring one is malarkey. You worked, under terms that they agreed to, and they owe you back pay and future pay if you continue to work. I'm not a lawyer nor am I your lawyer, so go get one. You are under no obligation to continue to work, but I'd guess that if you do, you will help them dig their hole deeper, since they will, at the very least, continue to not pay you until they've heard from your attorney, your state's Department of Labor (or equivalent), both, or you've won your lawsuit.


This institution seems to be taking advantage of you and not treating you with respect. I honestly think that you should quit and try to find opportunities elsewhere. If not in academia, in industry. I assume that you are a Physicist from your profile, and they are increasingly being hired in the software industry, so perhaps a change in career path? If not, this institution is at least in my opinion, not valuing you as an individual, much less an employee, I would advise moving on. I know this may not be practical, but having been engaged in research in academia and advising, I can honestly say that it may not get better.

  • They are not a good employer. I'm already on a trajectory away from this place, perhaps in numerical programming (my first love). And you're right about things probably not getting better... Oct 8, 2015 at 13:24
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    It's good to know that you're leaving such a place. You said have a that you have a passion for numerical programming? In my area, people like you are being searched for. Government labs, startups, etc. Your skills are worth 70k plus on the job market right now. I believe Los Alamos pays in the six figures for people like you and are looking for numerical programmers. You like teaching? Pick up an adjunct position, but do a favor to yourself and seek better opportunities.
    – user42055
    Oct 8, 2015 at 16:04

If I understand this correctly, you're saying that you were offered $4000 per 4-month semester (for instance), and since a month has gone by with no contract, they can't pay you for that month, so are saying that this semester is going to be $3000 instead.

I suggest that you go back to them and say, then pay me $4800 per semester, $800 of which we waive because it was during the time I was not under contract.

Then, suggest that they pay you $6000 per semester, to cover the unanticipated personal costs to cover your own benefits, which you had anticipated coming under the contract.

Then, suggest that THEY are the ones in a bind here...they might have to find a new lecturer tomorrow, if not sooner...or cancel classes and refund the tuition money, AND throw some students under a bus for their now-unfulfilled graduation requirements.


They were, if I recall, hiring you because they were short on available professors.

EDIT: this is not an organization that you want to consider your career.

  • The current approach is to ask them to increase my current salary to compensate for the loss of being 'illegal'. However, I don't have much hope this will do any good since the administration will just present another rule that says we can't do that. And honestly I don't see a future here, so when this blows over I'll just move on to something more sane. Oct 8, 2015 at 13:21
  • @JoelDeWitt If they bring that up, you should emphasized that you do 4 months of work, so they should pay you for for months starting now.
    – Nick S
    Oct 8, 2015 at 17:43
  • +1 for suggesting that they pay extra to cover legal costs. While the semester is underway OP has the leverage to make such a demand.
    – Thomas
    May 11, 2017 at 5:37

When two parties are stuck, as you and the university are, a letter from a lawyer often gets things unstuck. If you hire a lawyer to write them a stern letter, that ups the ante. It may do the trick.

Expect to spend between $100 and $500. Unless you can get some reduced-fee or pro-bono work from perhaps a local or regional workers' center.

  • Given that OP is a physicist, it's remarkable the ways Newton's Laws of Motion are all represented. The situation asked about is certainly brought on by the tendency of money to remain at rest, you're suggesting application of an external force, and dwoz's instructions go for equal and opposite to the trick HR is pulling.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 11, 2017 at 2:42

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