Treatment stores

Mississippi call center workers go on strike to demand better benefits and treatment

Dozens of people went on strike Wednesday near the Maximus Federal call center in Hattiesburg to demand better treatment from the company. Better health coverage and higher wages were among their demands.

Christine Jimenez spends her work days on the phone explaining affordable health care to callers who dial 1-800-MEDICARE. Meanwhile, his own health care expenses are piling up.

Although she works for a Maximus Federal call center under contract to help manage patients under the Affordable Care Act and Medicare plans, the 27-year-old described her own business like catastrophic health insurance.

Last year, she said about $18,000 was deducted from her salary to cover health insurance costs for her and her three children, more than half of her salary of $32,000. This is without counting the disbursements. The family deductible for coverage was $9,000.

Jimenez and most call center employees do not receive paid sick leave. Although they get “earned” days off, that time off is unpaid.

So, on Wednesday, Jimenez and several of his colleagues went on strike. A total of 47 workers and organizers took part in the strike, either gathering near the Maximus Federal call center in Hattiesburg or participating online, demanding better treatment from the company.

“I was scared to go out today,” Jimenez said. “But it was important to show my daughter that no matter how small you are, you can come together and make a difference.”

After pressure from employees, Maximus recently lowered the individual deductible from $4,500 to $2,500, which is closer to—but still about $830 more than—the national average. But Jimenez and others say they’re not done fighting for better pay and multibillion-dollar company perks.

Jimenez’s 3-year-old daughter, Naomi, grabbed her mother’s hand while holding a protest sign.

“I do it for her,” Jimenez said.

Maximus workers in Bogalusa, Louisiana, staged a similar protest at the same time Wednesday morning.

Maximus Federal has approximately 10,000 employees in 11 call centers in nine states. At the end of fiscal 2021, the company recorded a 22.8% increase in revenue to $4.25 billion.

The company said in a statement to Mississippi Today that it cares about its workers and is advocating for updates to the Contract for Service Act, which is a federal labor law that applies to all employers under contract with the federal government.

“Maximus has enhanced healthcare benefits within the funding levels made available under the terms of (the contractual agreement) under which we operate,” the company said in the statement.

The workers are also demanding an increase in their wages. Currently, call center workers earn $15 per hour, a recent increase from $11.25.

The wage increase came in anticipation of President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring all federal contractors to pay their workers at least $15 an hour. The order also directs the Secretary of Labor to set a minimum wage for federal contractors each year, which means it could change.

Maximus workers say they fear their wages will drop if they are no longer required by law to be $15.

In his statement to Mississippi Today, Maximus said their decision to increase wages before the president’s order is finalized shows their dedication to employees.

Sheree Collier, 59, of Collins, has worked at the business since 2017. Her best friend, Frances Poole, 55, of Hattiesburg, has worked there for seven years. Yet neither had individual raises based on experience or tenure. Poole earns as much per hour as new recruits.

“I’ve never worked a job where I wasn’t paid for my merit,” Collier said.

Collier led much of the group singing, “More dignity, more respect – more money in our checks.”

“I know you hear me in there, supervisors,” she yelled into the megaphone.

On Tuesday, one of the Hattiesburg call center employees filed a complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board. A file is now open. The worker accuses the company of “coercive actions” and “coercive statements”, which could include surveillance and threats against an employee trying to organize, according to council records.

Maximus workers are not part of a recognized union, although they do participate in organizing efforts with Communications Workers of America and its local CWA 3509.

Employees say they are working on organizing and hope to get enough support to be recognized and able to bargain with Maximus.

“We respect our employees’ legal right to attempt to organize, and any information we provide is designed to help them make an informed decision about union representation,” Maximus said in its statement.

Mississippi is a right-to-work state, which means workers are not required to pay dues or join an established union. Like much of the South, Mississippi is known for having few active unions.

Efforts to organize Maximus workers have failed before. Poole said it was partly because of the high turnover of his co-workers. But previous union negotiations never resulted in a strike like Wednesday’s.

“Don’t be afraid,” Collier said into the megaphone to his fellow strikers, as other workers parked and entered the offices. “Don’t let Maximus intimidate you.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the total number of workers who participated in the strike, some of whom did so online. Wording indicating where employees are in the unionization process has also been updated.

— Article credit to Sara DiNatale of mississippi today