Underpaid and Insulted, Maximus Call Center Workers Organize
Lakeisha Preston speaks in acronyms. Working the phones at federal contractor Maximus in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, she drops them as if they were name brands—MSP (Medicare Secondary Payee), ESRD (End Stage Renal Disease) coverage, and CMN (Certificate of Medical Necessity).
As she patiently explains these terms to callers who want to sign up for Medicare or enroll in the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchange, Preston keeps an eye on the clock to move to the next caller in the queue.
Call center workers average half an hour on the phone with each caller and are expected to answer about 15 calls per day. The workload increases to 20 calls per day during open enrollment for ACA coverage from November to January 15; this year a record-breaking 16.3 million people signed up for health care plans on the exchange.
Preston says callers grappling with terminal illnesses and angry at a cumbersome signup process often vent their frustration on the worker on the other end of the line. Sometimes their comments are outright racist. “You sound like you are Southern,” callers tell her. “I don’t want a Black person. I want an American voice. I don’t want no Indian.”
No wonder 10,000 workers toiling at call centers across nine states, mainly Black women, want to unionize with the Communications Workers (CWA).
Their effort to unionize really got underway in 2018 when thousands of workers came forward to allege wage theft totaling $100 million.
Eventually the Department of Labor found wage and hour violations affecting 2,224 workers. The federal contractor at the time, General Dynamics Information Technology, agreed to pay $553,131 in back wages, according to a CWA spokesperson. Maximus bought the company out in November 2018.
But despite the hefty settlement, the organizing began to fizzle because of high turnover.
Then last year, workers walked off the job in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Virginia in March, May, and November, demanding voluntary recognition of their union and higher pay.
They’ve expanded their initial demands to include a pay bump to $25 hourly, lowered health insurance deductibles, meaningful protection from abusive callers, and more time between calls.
Erica Davis, a customer service representative responsible for handling calls to 1-800-MEDICARE and the ACA marketplace, started working at the call center in 2017. She joined the union push because she wants higher wages and lower health insurance costs.
She said some callers become abusive when they get the slightest hint that the person on the line is fumbling their words. “If they don’t feel like you know what you’re talking about, they’re going to be more abrasive to you,” she says. It takes a toll on her co-workers: “People physically break down, walk out, and start crying.”
Recently 143 workers were let go with no severance and little notice. The company claims these layoffs were due to overstaffing, but Levonia Terrell, another customers service representative, says they’ve had a chilling effect; people are scared to come to union meetings. They need a union, Terrell said, “so that when concerns about a supervisor are brought up, you don’t have to be worried about losing your job.”
With support from CWA Locals 3509 and 3410, workers held protests in January to demand that Maximus rehire their laid-off co-workers or provide them two months of severance.
WINS ALONG THE WAY
Though it has already been a long, bruising fight, the workers have had some wins to buoy their spirits along the way.
Preston says one win is that now she can give callers two warnings before disconnecting the call if a caller repeatedly uses abusive language. Before that, though the policy was three warnings, she felt supervisors left her with no recourse but to endure the abuse, fearful that hanging up would cost her job.
And after workers organized to demand lower deductibles, Maximus cut the individual deductible from $4,500 to $2,500. Still, that deductible is $830 more than the national average of $1,669, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Preston found it a cruel irony that she was saddled with higher out-of-pocket costs than some of the plans she has helped people find through the ACA marketplace.
Davis’s household includes her five teenage children and her husband. She has picked up a second job as a massage therapist to make ends meet. She and her husband swap dental coverage from one spouse’s plan to the other’s, in an attempt to find savings. But even with these hacks, she’s coming up short and forgoing medical care.
Preston’s health care expenses are a minefield to navigate. Her son is enrolled in Medicaid, but the program requires her to get additional insurance for one of his medications. The Maximus premiums are expensive, though.
Maximus has 39,500 employees and 12,550 independent contractors in 10 countries and relies on public contracts for 82 percent of its revenue. The contracts include ACA, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and child support programs.
When Maximus bought General Dynamics for $400 million in 2018, it took over the remainder of a $5.5 billion, 10-year call center contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The public contracts are valuable because there are complicated bidding and pre-approval requirements, which eliminate potential competition. Last year’s CMS contract was worth $6.6 billion over 10 years, and the company’s annual revenue increased to $4.63 billion.
The McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act of 1965 guarantees prevailing wages to employees of federal contractors. But a company can request a price adjustment to cover the added costs if workers form a union and collectively bargain for better wages and benefits.
Maximus did just that when workers got a pay bump after President Biden signed an executive order in 2021 increasing the minimum wage to $15 hourly for federal contractors.
Meanwhile the company was still dragging its feet on implementing another executive order from 2015 that requires federal contractors to provide workers with seven days of paid leave annually. Until the summer of 2022, Maximus only allowed workers unpaid time off.
In a January letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, workers highlighted what they endure, including mandatory evening, weekend, holiday, and overtime work. “We sacrificed family obligations and even our own health,” they wrote. The letter compares Maximus’ $16.20 average hourly pay to federal workers who do similar work for $25 per hour.
Preston earns $17.50. A living wage for one working adult in a two-person household in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is $24.17, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell earned $7.9 million in total compensation in 2021.
“Can I get some of it?” Preston asked.