Call center workers employed at Maximus, the largest federal call center contractor in the nation, went on strike today in Hattiesburg, Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Federally contracted call center workers are striking in Hattiesburg for the third time this year — this time, taking aim at bathroom breaks and time off policies related to COVID-19. 

Maximus call center workers, who are tasked with handling customer service calls for Medicare, the Affordable Care Act marketplace and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been vocal for months in their union efforts and calls for workplace reforms

Some of the latest criticisms come from workers who take CDC information calls and say the call center isn’t giving workers the proper time off if they test positive for COVID-19. 

“Right now, some of us only get one day of paid leave when we test positive for COVID-19, even though the CDC recommends that anyone who tests positive for COVID quarantine for at least five days,” Hattiesburg worker Jennifer Dundit said in a statement. “Therefore, if we don’t have any accrued time off, we might be unable to properly quarantine to recover and help prevent community spread.” 

In a statement, Maximus said it follows the CDC’s workplace guidelines. Workers, the company says, have “24 hours of paid administrative leave,” which equates to three eight-hour shifts, if they test positive. But call center workers told Mississippi Today they only get one day off before having to dip into their earned time off – and that’s if they’ve accrued it. Often, they say, workers have to take unpaid time off while isolating – something they usually cannot afford. 

Call center workers in Bogalusa, La. also protested outside a Maximus call center Monday. Both groups have been calling for better wages since in-person protests began in March. Workers make about $15 an hour –  $31,000 to $35,000 a year before taxes. 

Maximus’ Hattiesburg workers are about 80% female, according to union group Call Center Workers United. Despite the largely female workforce, workers say in addition to poor time-off policies they’re also given strict six-minute bathroom break rules outside of their allotted 15-minute breaks and 30-minute lunches. After the story published, Maximus clarified that “bathroom breaks are allowed for everyone and can be longer than 6 minutes if needed.”

READ MORE: Starbucks employees and others trying to unionize in Mississippi face decades-old hardships

“We need more than six minutes to use the bathroom,” Dundit said, “and should not have to risk discipline or shame for doing so.” 

Maximus did not respond directly to the bathroom-break allegations, instead pointing out workers get two short breaks and one long lunch break during an 8-hour workday.

Since March, workers have called out Maximus for exorbitant health insurance costs. Workers have told Mississippi Today they struggle to stretch their paychecks to cover food, bills and basic medical costs.

Call Center Workers United recently announced a new “solidarity fund” to help support workers who choose to walk off the job in protest of working conditions. 

Maximus cut health insurance deductibles from $4,500 to $2,500 since workers began speaking out. Maximus has said it meets regularly with employees to address issues and has a hotline where workers can report complaints anonymously. 

“We welcome the opportunity to work directly with our employees and discuss and hopefully resolve their concerns,” Maximus told Mississippi Today after May’s protest. “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.”

Clarification 8/8/22: This story was updated with more detail about Maximus’ COVID-19 leave and bathroom break policies.

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