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HATTIESBURG — Christine Jimenez spends her workdays on the phone explaining affordable health care to callers who dial 1-800-MEDICARE. Meanwhile, her own health care expenses are piling up.
Despite working for a Maximus Federal call center contracted to help manage patients under the Affordable Care Act and Medicare plans, the 27-year-old described her own company provided health insurance as abysmal.
Last year, she said about $18,000 came out of her paychecks to cover health insurance costs for her and her three kids — that’s more than half her $32,000 salary. That’s not counting out-of-pocket costs. The family deductible for the coverage was a staggering $9,000.
Jimenez and most of the call center’s workers don’t get paid sick days. While they get “earned” days off, that time off isn’t paid.
So on Wednesday, Jimenez and several of her colleagues went on strike. In all, 47 workers and organizers participated in the strike, either gathered near the Maximus Federal’s Hattiesburg call center or participating online, demanding better treatment from the company.
“I was scared to come 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 employee pressure, Maximus recently dropped the individual deductible of $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 benefits from the multibillion-dollar company.
Jimenez’s 3-year-old daughter, Naomi, gripped her mother’s hand while holding a protest sign.
“I’m doing it for her,” Jimenez said.
Maximus workers in Bogalusa, Louisiana, held a similar demonstration at the same time late Wednesday morning.
Maximus Federal has about 10,000 workers across 11 call centers in nine states. At the end of fiscal year 2021, the company reported a revenue increase of 22.8% at $4.25 billion.
The company said in a statement to Mississippi Today that it cares about its workers and has been advocating for updates to the Service Contract Act, which is a federal labor law that applies to every employer contracted by the federal government.
“Maximus has improved health care benefits within the limitations of the funding levels made available under the terms of the (contract agreement) under which we operate,” the company said in the statement.
Workers are also calling for an increase in their wages. Currently the call center workers make $15 an hour, a recent bump up from $11.25.
The pay increase came in anticipation of President Joe Biden executive order that requires all federal contractors to pay their workers at least $15 an hour. The order also calls for the Secretary of Labor to set a federal contractor minimum wage each year, meaning it could change.
Maximus workers say they’re worried their pay could drop back down if it’s no longer required, by law, to be $15.
In its statement to Mississippi Today, Maximus said their move to increase wages before the president’s order was finalized shows their dedication to employees.
Sheree Collier, 59, of Collins has worked at the company since 2017. Her best friend, Frances Poole, 55, of Hattiesburg, has worked there the last seven years. Yet, neither have had individual raises based on their experience or tenure. Poole makes just as much per hour as new hires.
“I’ve never worked for a job before where I wasn’t paid for my merit,” Collier said.
Collier led much of the group in chants: “More dignity, more respect — more money in our checks.”
“I know you can hear me in there, supervisors” she bellowed through the megaphone.
On Tuesday, one of the Hattiesburg call center workers filed a complaint against the company to the National Labor Relations Board. A case is now opened. The worker is accusing the company of “coercive actions” and “coercive statements,” which could include surveillance and threats against an employee trying to organize, according to board records.
Maximus workers are not in a recognized union, although they are in organizing efforts with Communications Workers of America and its local CWA 3509 chapter.
They employees say they’re working toward unionizing and hope to get enough to 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, meaning 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 unionize Maximus workers have fizzled before. Poole said, in part, it’s because of high turnover of her coworkers. But previous union talks never resulted in a strike like Wednesday’s.
“Don’t be afraid,” Collier said through the megaphone to fellow strikers, while other workers parked and walked into 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. Language about where employees are in the unionization process has also been updated.