Call center workers employed at Maximus, the largest federal call center contractor in the nation, went on strike in Hattiesburg, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Mississippi call center workers and the NAACP are calling on the Biden administration to investigate equity and racial disparities at one of the country’s leading federal contractors, Maximus, which employs nearly 800 people in Hattiesburg.

The bulk of those frontline employees in Mississippi are Black women who handle customer service calls about Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

The heads of the NAACP and union Communication Workers of America delivered a letter Thursday on behalf of workers to the federal office charged with investigating discriminatory practices at federally contracted companies.

NAACP Director Derrick Johnson and CWA President Chris Shelton, who signed the letter, wrote that women of color at the company face barriers to move beyond the company’s lowest rungs, according to a copy obtained by Mississippi Today. The letter, addressed to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs Director Jenny R. Yang, says Maximus has failed to “address systematic racial disparities within its workforce.”

The letter alleges the company may be in violation of regulations that require federal contractors to “identify problem areas where impediments to equal employment opportunity may exist” and create programs to correct those problems. 

“I know that I am a great employee,” Daija Arrington, who has worked at the Hattiesburg call center for three years, said during a Thursday virtual press conference hosted by the NAACP and CWA. “I am someone who is willing to go above and beyond for my employer and in my job. But at Maximus, there’s just not an opportunity for me.”

Arrington said she, too, wants to see Maximus investigated by the feds. 

A report, written by the NAACP and CWA, references Maximus-released workforce data that shows while 48% of its call center employees are Black and Latina women, they represent just 5% of executives. The report surveyed nearly 300 call center employees and found that more than 60% applied for higher positions. Of that number, 75% said they were turned down or never heard back. 

In response to the report and letter, Maximus said in a statement it is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“We continue to make significant progress with our long-term commitment to build a strong and diverse workforce,” the statement said. “We take strong issue with undocumented and uncorroborated claims and faulty research promoted in this report.”

CWA’s report comes after its ongoing efforts in both Mississippi and Louisiana to organize Maximus call center workers, who last held a strike in November. Attendees to such events are consistently women of color calling for an increase in wages. 

Maximus said its company is regularly audited by the government for its hiring and promotional practices, as well as for the diversity of its staff by location. 

“Maximus has passed every audit conducted across our locations,” the statement said. “We hold ourselves accountable, from the executive level to those working every day serving millions of Americans seeking information and connecting with essential benefits.”

U.S. Rep Bennie Thompson, who attended Thursday’s virtual press conference, said he’s met with women who work at Maximus office in Hattiesburg. 

The Democratic congressman from Mississippi, too, called on the Biden administration to investigate Maximus, adding “if this contractor is in violation of the intended spirit of this whole issue around equity and inclusion, to hold them accountable. Either fix it, or find us another contractor who will.”

A spokesperson with the Department of Labor said should federal contractors be found violating compliance regulations they may be subject to contract termination and disbarment for future federal contracts. 

Arrington, who has almost a decade of experience working at call centers, is in school. She said she is about a year-and-a-half away from finishing her bachelor’s degree and has held supervisory roles at other call centers. She enjoys her job at Maximus but doesn’t feel like there’s a clear pathway, or support, to land a promotion.  

“If I could get Maximus to respect me and believe in me, like I believe in them, then we can go places together,” she said. “But that takes accountability and actions on both sides. And if I am trying to meet them halfway, but they’re not willing to do so, then that is an issue.” 

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