Local workers for the nation’s largest federal call center contractor announced a pledge to go on strike Tuesday morning. Roughly 200 of the company’s employees participated. They are demanding better pay, relief from back-to-back calls and protection from abusive callers. The physical strike was planned to take place from about 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Maximus, which is headquartered in Tysons Corner, employs one of the largest federally contracted workforces in the country under its call center contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Maximus workers handle calls for Medicare and the Affordable Care Act’s federal insurance marketplace. The strike was initiated on the first day of open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.
Maximus staff is pushing for a minimum wage of $25 per hour. The current starting wage at the Chester site is $17.11 per hour, which equals a yearly salary of about $34,200. They say the base pay rate is about half the wage needed for a parent with one child to meet the minimum standards of living across the four sites in Chester; London, Ky.; Bogalusa, La.; and Hattiesburg, Miss.
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“Across Southern states — where 8 of the 10 Maximus call centers are located — inflation has increased costs by 8.7% in the last year,” the workers wrote in a news release. “Prices for many necessities for working families have increased at even higher rates. Costs for groceries have increased by 13.2%, household energy costs by 19.9%, and gas by 13.9%.”
Maximus staff members are also calling for at least 30 minutes per shift of non-call time during which they can compose themselves and prepare for the next caller. They also want clear policies to protect them from abusive callers, including the ability to disconnect or escalate calls immediately without fear of punishment.
A statement from Maximus said that the company provides “reasonable and flexible” break policies, including bathroom breaks at any time, and two 15-minute rest breaks in addition to their 30-minute lunch break. The statement also said that the company hasn’t seen evidence of a growing trend in abusive or obscene calls.
“We have a very clear standard operating procedure to protect our employees when we occasionally receive such calls,” said Eileen Rivera, a company spokesperson via email. “If a caller is persistently inappropriate or obscene, or uses derogatory or disrespectful language, our employees are empowered to immediately end the call.”
An employee from the Chester call center said that the policies he has been taught to use do not allow for immediate disconnections from difficult callers.
“We’re not allowed to immediately end the call,” said Will Magnant, a three-year Maximus employee. “We have to give several warnings as to them being inappropriate and eventually we’re able to disconnect the call.”
Maximus says it welcomes the opportunity to work directly with its employees to discuss and resolve their concerns. The company added that it has instituted pay raises in the past several years, reduced employees’ out-of-pocket health care expenses and improved processes for safety.
Magnant said that pay rates increased in January of this year after the White House issued an executive order to increase the minimum wage for federal workers and contractors to $15 per hour. Before that, his rate was in the range of $13 per hour. As a tier two employee, his hourly rate is now $18.42.
Maximus said it employs 11,000 people at 10 call centers nationwide. It said that by its count, only two participated in the job action in Chester. The workers say they delivered 650 strike pledges last week across the four strike locations.
The workers also hosted a virtual town hall at 3:30 p.m. to discuss demands and the desired response from Maximus.
The same workers initiated a strike on Aug. 8 this year in protest of attendance policies and bathroom breaks. An employee in Hattiesburg said at the time that staff shouldn’t be penalized for taking off work for an illness, or to care for a family member with an illness. A spokesperson for the employees said this was at a time when the omicron BA.5 subvariant was spiking and a lot of workers were getting sick.
Maximus reported revenues of $4.25 billion in 2021, an increase of 22.9% over the previous year. The company’s operating margin also rose 1.3% to 9.6% in 2021. Quarterly cash dividends for the fourth quarter of 2021 were reported at $0.28 per share.
Maximus workers are not part of a union, but are organizing with Communications Workers of America.