Katherine Charles outside of Maximus’ office in Hillsborough County on June 5, 2023 (Mitch Perry / Florida Phoenix)
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDA – Since 2014, Katherine Charles has worked as a customer service representative for the federal contractor Maximus, answering telephone calls related to Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.
But Monday morning, she stood marching outside Maximus’ offices in the Hillsborough County, Florida town of Riverview east of Tampa, joining dozens of her colleagues and labor allies in a one-day strike against the company. Employees are calling for higher wages and better working conditions. She said it wasn’t something that was easy for her to do.
“It’s extremely hard. It’s nerve wracking. I don’t want to be laid off like many of my co-workers were recently, with very little notice,” Charles said. “It is scary, but I’m doing this for my children, and I’m doing it also for my fellow employees.”
Maximus is a Virginia-based, multi-million federal communications contractor with over 35,000 employees based in the U.S. and around the world. It is contracted with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to provide call center operations for 75 million Americans seeking information about their Medicare benefits as well as learning about programs available through the federal marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often known as Obamacare.
The Maximus workers are represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
However, last month the company laid off more than 700 employees at Maximus call centers around the country, prompting the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to file Unfair Labor Practice charges against them, alleging that some workers were laid off in retaliation for speaking out about their working conditions.
Starting pay for call center employees at Maximus begins at $16.20 an hour. Workers want to see that rise to $25 an hour.
“We want fair pay,” says Steven McLeary, 24, who has been working at another Maximus office in Tampa for the past year. “We’re getting $17 an hour while people at Social Security and Medicaid are getting paid $25 an hour, because we’re through a contract instead of directly for the government. We deserve that $25 an hour. “
Similar one-day strikes were held outside Maximus offices Monday in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Chester, Virginia; and Bogalusa, Louisiana, near the border of Mississippi.
Delora Brown worked for Maximus for a year and a half before being let go by the company in August 2022. She now works at another call center in the Tampa Bay area as a customer service representative for Medicare Advantage, where she says the pay and working conditions are much better. At Maximus, Brown said she did not like the fact that she was docked pay if it took longer than three minutes to use the restroom.
“Whenever you clock out, you put [your computer] on a bathroom break, it starts the timer,” she explained. “So if it goes over a certain time, you have to report that you were at the bathroom. ‘Why were you at the bathroom so long?’ I’m like – I don’t feel like I need to elaborate on that, on me going to the bathroom. It was kind of disgusting.”
A spokesperson for Maximus provided a statement that included a reference to bathroom breaks: “Employees can take a bathroom break at any time. No one is denied a break; no one is shamed for taking a break.”
The one-day strike comes a month after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law passed in the recent legislative session that cracks down on public employee unions in Florida. The measure prevents dues from being deducted automatically from workers’ paychecks, forcing them to make separate payments. And it would decertify any public employee union (such as a teacher union) if fewer than 60% of the employees choose to become a dues-paying members.
Notably the law omitted unions representing law enforcement officers, corrections officers and firefighters.
That rankles former Hillsborough County Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw, who attended Monday’s protest to show solidarity with the striking Maximus employees.
“Listen, what’s good for one union should be good for all unions,” he said. “So if all unions need to end, then let’s end them all. Why are we picking out certain unions? You and I know why they’re picking them out, because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of our first responders who we all love and respect, but no union is worse or better than another; if this union had to end because Tallahassee thinks that it shouldn’t exist, the police union should be held to the same standard. The firefighter union ought to be held to the same standard. I don’t know why one is better than another.”
Strikes taking place
A representative from Maximus issued a statement to the Florida Phoenix regarding the strikes taking place in Florida and elsewhere on Monday.
Maximus welcomes the opportunity to engage directly with our employees and work together to resolve their concerns. 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 follows all labor laws and regulations, and we strive to treat all employees equally with respect and sensitivity.
Our employees are engaged and motivated to deliver high-quality customer service to millions of Americans. With competitive wages and benefits, our employees believe Maximus is a great place to work. We know this because we have historically lower attrition rates than normal.
With the end of open enrollment season for Medicare and the Federal Health Insurance Exchange, we entered the time of year when there is diminished demand for our call center services. As an organization, we hold ourselves accountable for our actions. Whenever we make staffing decisions, we prioritize treating all our people with respect and sensitivity. To that end, as a company-wide practice, we coordinate with other Maximus programs to identify available positions for impacted employees.
Due in part to the administration’s action raising the minimum wage to $16.20 per hour for employees of federal contractors, Maximus staff turnover this year was lower than expected in our Contact Center Operations program. Determining compensation requires input and approval from our government customers. We work with every customer to strike the right balance between competitive compensation and achieving successful results at scale and value.
Additionally, our most recent employee engagement survey shows that 84% of our employees plan to stay with the company for at least another 12 months. Over the past several years, Maximus has improved pay and compensation, reduced employees’ out-of-pocket health care expenses and improved work processes and safety. We continue to look for ways to assure that Maximus is an employer of choice. Employees can take a bathroom break at any time. No one is denied a break; no one is shamed for taking a break.
Our people want to work for Maximus and their passion is making a difference. They consistently provide high-quality service and demonstrate deep knowledge about the programs we support. Thanks to our employees’ performance, we continue to provide the best customer experience to the American public when they need help navigating government programs.
This story first appeared in the Florida Phoenix, a sister publication of the Mercury within the States Newsroom network.
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