Federal call center workers join March on Washington call attention to workplace inequities ⋆

Call center workers that help Americans navigate the ACA marketplace and Medicare are demanding more paths for advancement, higher pay, and more breaks between calls at this year’s March on Washington.

They’re looking to bring government attention to their cause after previous efforts to get the attention of officials with the Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services have not yielded results.

They say that the issues they are facing are connected to racial and gender inequities at Maximus, a Virginia-based private company that contracts with U.S. Health and Human Services as well as other federal agencies. A 2023 report found only 2% of managers with frontline customer service experience were internally promoted.

Sixty-nine percent of frontline workers were Black, Latino or other people of color, while the same demographics composed only 21% of executives and senior managers, according to the report from NAACP, Communication Workers of America and Strategic Organizing Center.

For the 60th anniversary of the historic march for civil rights and economic opportunities for Black Americans, a group of organizations with a diverse set of focuses — racial justice, labor rights, student debt, LGBTQ equality, and voting rights, to name a few — gathered in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The march will begin at the Lincoln Memorial and end at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and 75,000 people were expected to attend.

This march came on the heels of what has been called a “hot labor summer” after everyone from hotel workers to actors have gone on strike, and UPS drivers secured a generous new contract after threatening to strike.

Maximus employees are hoping to achieve their own gains. Katherine Charles, a call center worker from Tampa, Florida, who came to D.C. for the march, said she wants federal officials to investigate the company because of the way it treats workers.

Maximus has made multiple rounds of layoffs this year. In January, 143 workers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and more than 100 workers in Bogalusa, Louisiana, were laid off and did not receive severance, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. In May, Maximus laid off more than 700 workers, who received severance packages.

The CWA filed an unfair labor practice complaint in May, accusing the company of using the layoffs and other union-busting tactics as retaliation for organizing. Call Center Workers United held demonstrations after the layoffs, including a May protest outside of the Department of Health and Human Services office in Washington D.C., and a June protest at a Maximus office building in Chester, Virginia.

Victoria Miller, an organizer at the CWA, said it’s been challenging to organize because of all the layoffs this year.

“I don’t believe it is fair for a place where the workforce is majority female, single mothers, to be laid off massively without any notice like they have done before …,” she said. “We have a federal contract, but we are not treated as federal employees.”

Keaira Mark, a former Maximus worker who was laid off in May and lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, came to D.C. to march to support the many people she knows who still work there. “Even though I don’t work there, I still have friends who work there. My mom still works there,” she said. “We’re looking to get more exposure and hopefully community support and government support, and put some pressure on Maximus to change.”

Maximus workers also told States Newsroom that they need more time off between calls, because some of the calls they receive can be abusive, and it’s challenging to go right from one like that to the next.

They argue that their employer has enough money to improve working conditions. The business expects to generate $4.875 billion to $4.975 billion in revenue this year, according to Maximus’ August investor presentation. Maximus employs more than 35,000 employees in the U.S. and internationally, and its workers handle 7 million contact center inquiries per month and 43 million calls annually about federal health insurance enrollment.

The NAACP, CWA, and SOC wrote to Department of Labor officials in March bringing attention to a lack of workers of color and women in leadership positions at the company, which brought in 48% of its revenue in fiscal year 2022 from U.S. federal services according to the August presentation. The groups said that Maximus should be investigated for what they say is a noncompliance with laws protecting against discrimination.

Maximus employees have engaged in multiple walkouts to bring attention to calls for improved working conditions. In November, call center workers held walkouts in Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana to fight for pay of $25 an hour and more breaks in between their calls. At the time, Maximus said workers received two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour lunch break.

In response to questions about whether Maximus plans to improve working conditions, a spokesperson for the company told States Newsroom in an email, “We are always focused on ways to strengthen benefits for our employees. For example, we improved pay and compensation above the minimum wage and reduced employees’ out-of-pocket health care expenses.”

Maximus said it increased pay and compensation before an executive order finalized the minimum wage increase for federal contractors and said it pays call center employees a starting wage of $16.20.

“In certain geographies, and depending on the time of year, Maximus exceeds that wage,” the spokesperson said.

Disclosure: Casey Quinlan was previously a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild as a reporter for the American Independent. The NewsGuild is a sector in the Communications Workers of America.

authored by Casey Quinlan
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