HATTIESBURG — Seconds after Tiffany Murray says she was sexually harassed by a man who dialed 1-800-Medicare, she was supposed to be ready for the next caller.
Murray, 37, said she didn’t have the time to collect herself after the first time he called. Or when he called again the next day.
He wanted to know how she looked in stockings, Murray recalled. He called her slurs. She said she heard him pleasuring himself on the other end.
“I had no time to recover from that,” she told Mississippi Today. “There is no time in between.”
Because when one call ends, another one is almost always waiting – no matter how cruel or inappropriate the previous customer was, according to Maximus call center workers who spoke with Mississippi Today.
Murray is one of hundreds of federally contracted workers employed by Maximus’ Hattiesburg office. She was also one of more than 200 workers who went on strike outside of the call center Tuesday. It was the fourth strike Maximus workers have held since the beginning of the year. Workers spent the morning calling for $25-an-hour pay, more support from supervisors, and better protection from abusive callers.
Tuesday marked the start of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, which is one of the main agencies for which Maximus workers take customer calls. That means workers are entering their busiest time of the year managing 50 to 100 callers or more a day.
Calls can last a few minutes or more than an hour.
“We are never supposed to just hang up on people,” Murray said, referring to abusive callers. “We have to make a continued effort to give them a chance to correct their behavior.”
Murray and other workers said they are directed to give three warnings before hanging up – something Maxius said in a statement is not required.
Murray said when she reported the man who was sexually inappropriate, her supervisor didn’t react. In a statement, Maximus said workers can end a call “immediately” if a caller is “persistently inappropriate or obscene.”
Workers want up to 30 minutes they can use over an eight-hour shift to take short breaks between calls – time to collect their thoughts, recover from an abusive caller, or take notes about a particular incident.
Maximus says its break schedule has enough flexibility as is: Workers are given two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch.
“Maximus respects the dignity and wellbeing of our employees,” the company said in its statement. “While we haven’t seen evidence of a growing trend in abusive or obscene calls, we have a very clear Standard Operating Procedure to protect our employees when we occasionally receive such calls.”
Maximus workers are not formally unionized but have been organizing on and off for the last several years. Efforts peaked this year, with Tuesday’s strike being their highest attended so far.
Keaira Mark, 23, is looking for a second job because her rent is about to go up $100 a month. The Hattiesburg resident has been working at Maximus for almost three years, handling phone calls for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If I miss even an hour of work (at Maximus), I’d be this close to missing rent and risk being evicted,” Mark said, while holding her pointer finger and thumb barely an inch apart.
She is seeking out a part-time food delivery job to supplement her income so she has at least a small cushion.
“I wish I could focus on bettering my career,” she said, “but I’m just trying to find another job to pay the bills.”
About 650 workers handed in pledges to strike across four Maximus locations Tuesday, according to the Call Center Workers of America union. Half of them signed in to strike in Hattiesburg, according to the union. Workers met outside the call center off Highway 49 to march at 8 a.m. before gathering near the office’s parking lot.
Some workers chanted from nearby parking lots, keeping guard of their vehicles as tow trucks lurked. One car was towed from the Maximus parking lot, dragged across the pavement in front of a wall of protestors dressed in red.
Workers have already had some success in pushing the company to lower health care deductibles – though most are still calling for better coverage.
“Maximus welcomes the opportunity to work directly with our employees and discuss and hopefully resolve their concerns,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
During the height of the pandemic, their hourly pay was bumped to $15 an hour. The pay hike came into effect just before President Joe Biden’s executive order required all federally contracted workers to be paid at that rate.
Workers say their job requires a set of skills deserving of a wage increase. Workers are regularly helping callers navigate complex government programs such as Medicare and the health insurance marketplace. They say they deserve wages that more closely match those of federal employees who aren’t working for contract companies – especially as inflation continues to push up the cost of living.
Energy was high Tuesday. Even workers who didn’t strike drove by honking their horns in support.
Murray, the Medicare line worker, strolled around the gathered group with a portable microphone and speaker on wheels, hyping up coworkers. She encouraged them to share their own stories by chanting “let’s talk about it.”
“We want change,” Murray bellowed into her mic. “And we don’t mean pennies.”