Portrait of supervisor with business team working at desk in call center

Call center workers organize to join union, demand federal contractor, Maximus, take better safety precautions in coronavirus pandemic

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10,000 employees at Maximus’ eleven call centers say their working conditions are dangerous in the Covid-19 crisis. 

Maximus, a company that helps governments administer health and human services, finds itself in a tug-of-war over safe working environments with call center employees. With layouts at call centers seating customer service representatives in close proximity, it’s operators contend that the compact arrangements place them and their families in danger. 

Even as Maximus moved call center workers “two seats” apart, Sylvia Walker, an employee in their Louisiana location says “it’s not enough.”

“If the Social Security Administration can work from home, so can we,” says Walker. 

multiethnic group of female customer service representatives talking on the phone and typing on computer keyboard. Horizontal shape, side view, copy space

Thousands of businesses have switched their in-person operations to work-at-home for millions of employees. Included are a number of federal workers and government contractors. This is not the case for Maximus.

Now, Maximus call center employees demand the immediate option of working from home. If they cannot, they want the choice of taking emergency paid leave while keeping their insurance coverage. Currently, paid leave is granted if employees provide medical documentation proving they have been infected. But, the shortage of covid-19 tests or delayed results when tests are available, have been reported throughout the US. Especially, in states where healthcare facilities were under-resourced before the crisis hit, Maximus’ paid leave policy increases the possibility of exposure.

Added to the pressure of their job, Maximus required employees to bring birth certificates of their children and paperwork proving their children’s schools closed down, in order to take leave, said Jamie Brown from Maximus’ Hattiesburg, Mississippi location. Included in their grievances, call center workers say that they are not given any incentive for still working in company quarters. If they do receive extra pay, they must first meet a threshold of hours established by Maximus. 

Ironically, in a message from Maximus CEO, Bruce Caswell, he stated the company “partners with governments to help serve some of the most vulnerable and at-risk communities across the United States and around the globe.”

Since 2019, call center employees complained about low wages. Now added are unsafe working conditions at its locations in Mississippi, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Utah and Virginia. However, after the heads of Maximus denied repeated requests to meet and discuss their concerns, call center workers organized to join the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

“Refusing to engage in dialogue with workers is always bad policy, but especially bad policy during a pandemic. The lack of communication puts people at unnecessary risk. Maximus needs to meet with the workers’ organizing committee and discuss policies that will keep workers, their families, and their communities safe,” says CWA President Chris Shelton.

Maximus’ unhealthy labor history

For years, workers and labor unions have criticized Maximus for its treatment of workers. As the largest provider of contact center services to the federal government, and the largest provider of Medicaid administrative services to state governments, the company outsources administrative services for federal and state government agencies. 

Some of the locations of call centers are in high-poverty and vulnerable areas. Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas have record number of low wealth communities, as well as, populations with chronic health issues stemming from poverty. In particular, Louisiana and Mississippi have been named two of the most unhealthiest states for years. Although, scientists are working around the clock to understand the novel coronavirus, there is a resounding agreement that people with pre-existing conditions are considered vulnerable populations.

Last week, the US replaced Italy as the epicenter of the Covid-19 global pandemic. As of April 1, there are 188,639 cases and 4,059 deaths in the country. Of that, New York, New Jersey, California and Louisiana record rapidly rising infections. While New York is the red zone, states like Mississippi have been slow to take measures to stop the spread. In Louisiana, authorities surmise that Mardi Gras celebrations created a petri dish for New Orleans’ being an area where there is a concentration of infections.

With the US still in the beginning stages of the Covid-19 crisis, the impact of preventing workers from telework might have dire health and economic impact. At best, workers say Maximus’ response to the pandemic is inadequate.

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