Frances Poole says she is still rationing medication from 2019 after doctors raced to save her life by removing her colon.
Last time she attempted to have the pills refilled at the pharmacy, she said the bill was $70. She should also be having regular checkups with a specialist.
“I just cannot afford that,” said Poole, 55.
Poole has spent the last seven years at Maximus Federal in Hattiesburg, a call center contracted by the federal government. All workday, she answers questions about the Obamacare marketplace. Often, she says, the health benefits she’s helping callers with are better than what she has through Maximus.
That’s why she’s become one of the call center’s most vocal employees, working alongside the Communications Workers of America and its local Hattiesburg chapter to organize Maximus workers. She attended their first strike in March and was back on the picket line for a two-day strike on Monday and Tuesday.
In addition to offering assistance with the Affordable Care Act marketplace, call center workers also handle Medicare inquiries. There are about 10,000 Maximus workers across 11 call centers. Workers in a Louisiana call center also went on strike this week.
Workers say they’ve seen no response from Maximus – the nation’s largest federal contractor – since their first strike in March. Their biggest complaints continue to be benefits and wages. The changes the company made earlier this year to improve pay and health care aren’t enough, according to workers.
Maximus lowered the health care deductibles from $4,500 to $2,500 after employee pressure began in 2021.
“But who has $2,500?” Poole said.
Call center workers make about $15 an hour, leaving most of the Hattiesburg workers with wages between $31,000 to $35,000 a year before taxes. That latest hike came just ahead of a presidential order in January that all federal contract workers be paid $15 an hour.
Most of the Hattiesburg workers were making between $9 and $11 before the pandemic.
On Tuesday morning – while dozens of workers, activists and CWA members marched to deliver the second-day strike notice – Maximus leaders held a virtual investors call.
Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell called the company’s “people its advantage.”
“Our commitment to make Maximus an employer of choice is not a new goal,” Caswell told investors, as he touted flexibility the company offers with work-from-home options and the recent cuts to health care costs.
In its second quarter report that came out earlier this month, Maximus reported a revenue increase of 22.7% to $1.18 billion compared to last year. The company expects revenue for the latest fiscal year to range between $4.5 to $4.7 billion.
With the costs of essentials like gas and food on the rise, Poole and her coworkers say it has been all the more difficult to stretch each paycheck enough. Their wages, workers say, have never kept up with inflation making it near impossible to build up any sort of meaningful savings.
“What man or woman or family can survive at $9.05 an hour?” Jaimie Brown, 49, said, referring to his long-held former wage as a Maximus worker. “Seven years I’d been doing this. What makes me not a professional? Why can’t you pay me as a professional?”
Brown said he was regularly assisting insurance brokers do their jobs.
He is a single parent of a 7-year-old son. Many of his former coworkers are single mothers; most are Black.
Brown’s employment ended with Maximus in March. He filed a complaint against the National Labor Relations Review Board with the help of the CWA, the union Maximus employees are working with. The CWA said in a statement that they’re holding Maxiums accountable for discouraging workers from forming a union.
Brown declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint and his separation from the company. Maximus said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but that it respects workers rights to organize.
Brown has lived in Mississippi for almost two decades. He was raised in New York, where unions are more common. Organizers and experts across Mississippi have said one of the biggest hurdles organizers face in the South is educating workers on their rights.
“There’s going to be some ups and downs,” Brown said. “You got to take the bumps with it in order for improvement. It takes a fight … but there will be no benefits unless we all stand up to do this.”
In a statement, Maximus said it “routinely meets with its employees to address various concerns and issues.” It also says it has an employee hotline where workers can submit issues anonymously.
CWA said nearly 100 workers went on strike this week in Mississippi.
“It can all go around,” Brown said, referring to forming a union. “Everyone could win.”