Meet the Mississippi call center workers organizing for better pay and conditions

Jennifer Mark is among the workers at a Maximus call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who are organizing for better pay and working conditions. (Photo by Jason Kerzinski.)

In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, workers who handle customer service for Medicare and the Affordable Care Act marketplace are fighting for better pay and conditions at a call center operated by Maximus, a government services company based in Reston, Virginia.

The majority of workers in the Hattiesburg call center — nearly 90% — are women of color. They have asked for a pay raise from the new $15 hourly minimum for federally contracted employees set during the pandemic to at least $25 an hour. Before President Biden's executive order establishing the new pay rate, which took effect in September, Maximus employees in Mississippi were making just $11.65 an hour.

The workers' demands also include a lower deductible on their company-provided health insurance, additional break time, and more protective policies regarding abusive callers, who regularly subject workers to racist and sexist comments. The workers want to be able to disconnect from such calls immediately, which company policy now prohibits.

Head shot of a silver-haired white man in a suit jacket and tie
Maximus President and CEO Bruce Caswell made over $7.9 million last year, even while his workers — who help people access affordable health care — have gone without needed care because of low pay and high deductibles. (Photo from the Maximus website.)

Maximus employs about 700 to 900 call-center workers in Hattiesburg, and about 10,000 across all 12 of its health care-related call centers nationwide. Workers say their job — helping callers navigate complex government programs — requires skills that deserve higher wages.

The Maximus workers are not part of a recognized union, but since 2017 they have been organizing with Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents around a half-million telecom and media workers nationwide. They are determined to work towards unionizing so they can collectively bargain with the company.

In 2022, the Hattiesburg Maximus workers participated in four one- or two-day strikes with CWA's support. The latest took place on Nov. 1 —  the first day of open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, which is the busiest time for these workers, who must handle anywhere between 50 to 100 calls a day. Nearly 200 workers picketed in front of the Maximus call center in Hattiesburg, and workers at other Maximus call-center locations in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia also participated in the strike.

Thanks to their workers' labor, Maximus is doing well financially: The company reported revenue of $4.25 billion in fiscal year 2021, an increase of almost 23% over the previous year. Meanwhile, Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell's total compensation in 2021 was over $7.9 million — 208 times the median earnings of a Maximus worker.

To understand call center workers' struggles for dignity on the job, we need to hear from them and to know that these are real people with families to care for and daily struggles that are compounded by how they're treated by Maximus. I recently visited with five workers from the Hattiesburg call center and asked them this: “How does it feel to know that the CEO of Maximus makes 208 times more than the median income of a Maximus employee? If you could say something to him, what would it be?" These are their responses.

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Maximus worker Christina Jimenez. Photo by Jason Kerzinski.

Christina Jimenez: 'It really hurts me to the core'

So how it feels to know that the CEO of Maximus makes 208 times more than I make is mind boggling. Because all he has to do is sit at a desk and talk. I get to sit at a desk and talk, but I'm talking to the beneficiaries of Medicare and having to answer all the hard questions on why Medicare does not cover a lifesaving procedure or lifesaving durable medical equipment. I have to get berated and called everything other than my own name, but the CEO can just sit at his desk and drink a coffee, if he wants to.

I have to struggle to go to the doctor because I don't make enough. I have to struggle to pay for my light bill. I have to struggle to feed me and my three children. It's only me at home. I don't have state assistance because I make too much for state assistance. I don't have another income. So it's all on me to have to pay for everything. So for me to hear that he makes 208 times more than I make? I just want to trade incomes with him for a month and see how he can live.

It really hurts me to the core to have to think that he can live a lavish life and knowing that his workers are struggling day to day — struggling and not having a way to come out from the bottom. It's just too hard, especially in today's society.

Maximus worker Keaira Mark. Photo by Jason Kerzinski.

Keaira Mark: 'I can't afford to pay for the surgery'

Knowing that Bruce Caswell makes that much more than us, it helps me to understand how out of touch he is with regards to what he's paying his employees. I can only imagine how he doesn't understand what living life on $15 hour is and how stressful it can be is when he makes our monthly income in less than an hour. If I had to say something to Bruce Caswell, I would say that $15 is only enough to live to work and work to live.

Just recently, I was told I had to visit the hospital because I had issues with my gallbladder and was told that I needed emergency surgery. But with our health insurance, I couldn't cover it to get the surgery done. So every day, the stress weighs over me whether or not my gallbladder is going to rupture, but I can't afford to pay for the surgery when I have to pay for my rent. And then if you go one day without working, or two hours without working, you're at a balance where you are at risk of having your housing be taken away from you. Because you're that much living paycheck to paycheck, to the point where you can't afford to miss anything as short as your full 40 hours that we're working for him.

There are some times where we have to decide whether we want to put gas in our car to get to work, or take that money and put it towards extra groceries in our house to feed ourselves. $15 is just not enough. It's dehumanizing. It's just like he's treating us as if we're robots and we don't have rights to a regular life, to the American dream. All we are, are employees.

Maximus worker Yasming Johnson. Photo by Jason Kerzinski.

Yasming Johnson: 'I rob Peter to pay Paul'

Let me tell you a story. I have a household of five. My household consists of all females, and everyone depends on me. I'm the sole provider. With that being said, only making $15 an hour does not cover our expenses at all. We have to buy groceries, we have to buy — we have to have gas for the cars, utility bills, phone bills. I also have a child with a disability. I do not get any government assistance. So, with that being said, I rob Peter to pay Paul, to make sure that my household is halfway ran, you know, ran in a specific way. I have to make sure that we have, you know, a household, a roof over our head. We have to make sure that we have groceries in the home, things of that manner, you know. Also, like I said, I have a special needs child that needs specific things. I also have times that my phone is off, because I have to make sure that, you know, my household is ran properly. I have to choose between a phone bill and food, or, you know, a light bill to make sure that the water is on. That's how it runs. This is every month, you know, with only $15 an hour.

Bruce Caswell, I feel, doesn't have those issues. Because what we make in our monthly paychecks, he makes in an hour. That's not fair to the workers that's making you look good, to the people who's bringing in the money for you. So why not make sure that the people that are behind you, why not make sure that their families are OK, too?

We can't, we can't go to the doctors and things of that manner because we have a ridiculous deductible to meet before we even get any benefits of that plan. Yet we provide insurance to the world. We provide affordable insurance to all these people around the world. But we can't get any health care that we need. That's not fair. That's — I just don't think that is fair. I think that he should step up and take care of your workers, like your workers take care of you. And you will have a more successful company without people complaining so much, you know.

Provide us with that affordable health care, like we provide the rest of the world. Provide us with enough money where we can live and take care of our families. The majority of the women that work at Maximus — it's 90% of women that work for Maximus — I'm sure about at least 50 or more percent have babies that they have to take care of, have homes and things that they have to take care of, you know. So I just feel like it's unfair. And he should, he should be able to help us out.

You know, with the inflation — inflation is up 80, 90% this year, which means everything has gone to the roof. Making what we're making, there's no way we can meet that without waiting for another paycheck. Everybody that works at Maximus, nine times out of 10 those people are working paycheck to paycheck. And we depend on our paycheck to make sure that we can even halfway pay those bills. You know? They don't offer us overtime regularly. It's only maybe once a year, so we try to take advantage of that. But what about the rest of the year? You know? That's how I feel.

Maximus worker Tiffany Murray. Photo by Jason Kerzinski.

Tiffany Murray: 'It is a hard job that we do'

My name is Tiffany Murray, I am a CSR [customer service representative] at Maximus Federal. And what bothers me the most is that I found out that the CEO, he is a millionaire. He made close to $8 million last year. And since I started in July, a lot of my coworkers have been struggling to make ends meet. They don't know how they're going to pay their deductible. The deductible is so high for our health insurance. While we're providing affordable health insurance for, you know, all of our American citizens, a lot of us struggle with our own, you know, health care, because it's not affordable.

And one thing that I would, if I had the chance to talk to Bruce Caswell, I would let him know that it is a hard job that we do. And if he put hisself in our shoes, he would see what we go through on a day-to-day basis. And, you know, he may sympathize with us that we do need annual raises and performance raises. Because where I come from in Chicago, Illinois, that's when I'm used to performance raises and annual raises. And, you know, we're treated with respect and dignity, you know, and I just don't feel that here at Maximus. I really want the policies to change, you know, how everything is micromanaged. And, you know, it's just not fair that my coworkers have to decide if they're going to pay for medical, or if they're going to provide for their families or, you know, feed themselves.

So there's a lot of issues that Bruce Caswell is unaware of because he's a millionaire. And if we swapped paychecks, you know, then I'm sure he would see from our point of view that we just can't make ends meet with that type of money. And, you know, the stress that we deal with on a day-to day-basis, it's mentally and physically draining. We have to be counselors, we have to be advocates, we sometimes you have to be a referee. There may be someone on the other line with the beneficiary. So, you know, there's a lot of stress that's put on our back. We have to take calls, we have to check our emails, we have to check our schedules, we have to keep up with team messages. And all, you know, all while assisting our callers as well.

And we just feel that, you know — I feel that we should be compensated, you know, for the work that we do, because we are essential. There are over 70 million people on Medicare, and you know, we assist all 70 million of those people, you know, to make sure that they have, you know, the coverage that they need. But no one's making sure that we have the coverage that we need.

Maximus worker Jennifer Mark. Photo by Jason Kerzinski.

Jennifer Mark: 'You got to have some kind of remorse'

Knowing that the CEO makes more than I make in a year is very saddening. And the reason I say that is because I work my butt off every day to make sure that I do my job so I can keep my job in order to keep my house, to keep food in my refrigerator. That doesn't happen very often. And I'm a single parent, and I live alone. I'm one person, and I can't provide food for myself. So I could just imagine what other people that have kids have to go through.

Now back here in April, I had to get my gallbladder removed. And I'm still paying for that to this day because the insurance is worthless. But I still continue to work to make sure that I can provide for myself, even though this man makes more than I make in a year. And knowing that and just saying it over and over and over, it just breaks my heart. Because you got to know that we are human beings just like you. You got to know. I know you have a friend or family member that is just like me, that's down at the bottom of the food chain. And you got to have some kind of remorse or something. You can't be that heartless to think that giving your employees $15 a hour is enough. After everything we do for you guys.

I remember working at a little small mom and pop store. And that man, every holiday he would come up and he will say, "Hey, I know you're working for me and I appreciate you" by giving me a ham or turkey, even a little bonus in my hand. And the fact that I've been working with this company three years and I don't even know what this man looks like is crazy to me. Like, why we can't meet face to face. I remember taking a trip all the way up to Virginia to go to this big old office that I heard that they have the main quarters, and I was rejected, and I am a Maximus employee. And I was like stunned by that. So it's like, what is my worth? Am I really worth, or am I worthless? I don't understand.