The Maximus workers strike in Hattiesburg

HATTIESBURG – Seconds after Tiffany Murray says she was sexually abused by a man who dialed 1-800-Medicare, she was supposed to be ready for another call.

Murray, 37, said she didn’t have time to pull herself together after the first call. Or when he called again the next day.

He wanted to know what he looked like in stockings, recalls Murray. He called her insults. She said she heard him settle for the other side.

“I didn’t have time to recover,” Mississippi Today said. “There is no time in between.”

Because when one call ends, there’s almost always another waiting – no matter how cruel or inappropriate the previous customer may have been, according to Maximus call center employees who spoke to Mississippi Today.

Murray is one of the hundreds of federal contract workers employed by Maximus’s Hattiesburg office. She was also one of more than 200 employees who went on strike outside the call center on Tuesday. This was the fourth strike by Maximus workers since the beginning of the year. Employees spent the morning calling $ 25 an hour, more support from supervisors, and better protection from aggressive callers.

Open enrollment in the Affordable Price Act, which is one of the main agencies for which Maximus employees receive phone calls from customers, began on Tuesday. This means employees enter the busiest time of the year, serving 50 to 100 or more callers a day.

Conversations may last for several minutes or longer than an hour.

“We should never just disconnect from people,” Murray said, referring to the abusers. “We must do our best to give them a chance to improve their behavior.”

Murray and other employees said they are to issue three warnings before disconnecting – something Maxius said in the statement is not required.

Murray said that when she reported the man who was sexually inappropriate, her supervisor didn’t react. In a statement, Maximus said employees could end the call “immediately” if the caller was “persistently inappropriate or indecent.”

Employees want a maximum of 30 minutes, which they can use in an eight-hour shift to take short breaks between calls – time to collect your thoughts, recover from an abuse of a caller, or take notes about a specific incident.

Maximus says its break schedule is flexible enough: employees are given two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch.

“Maximus respects the dignity and well-being of our employees,” the company said in a statement. “While we have not seen evidence of a growing trend in offensive or indecent phone calls, we have a very clear standard operating procedure to protect our employees when we receive such calls from time to time.”

Zach Harper, a customer service representative (CSR), joined other Maximus CSR employees who went on strike today in Hattiesburg on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. Loan: Vickie D. King / Mississippi Today

Maximus employees are not formally bound, but have been organizing on and off for several years. Efforts peaked this year, and Tuesday’s strike was the largest share so far.

Keaira Mark, 23, is looking for a second job as her rent is expected to rise by $ 100 a month soon. The Hattiesburg resident has been working at Maximus for almost three years, handling calls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If I miss even an hour of work (at Maximus), I’d be so close to losing my rent and risking eviction,” said Mark, holding her index finger and thumb just an inch apart.

He is looking for a part-time job providing food to supplement his income, so he has at least a small pillow.

“I’d like to focus on improving my career,” she said, “but I’m just trying to get another job to pay the bills.”

Around 650 workers pledged to strike at four Maximus locations on Tuesday, according to the Call Center Workers of America union. According to the union, half of them signed up for the Hattiesburg strike. Staff met outside the call center on Highway 49 to march at 8am, then gather near the office parking lot.

Some employees sang from nearby parking lots, guarding their vehicles as the tow trucks lurked. One car was towed from the Maximus parking lot, dragged across the sidewalk in front of a wall of protesters dressed in red.

Workers have already had some success in putting pressure on the company to cut health care deductions – though most continue to call for better insurance.

“Maximus welcomes the opportunity to work directly with our employees and discuss and hopefully solve their problems,” the company said in a statement. “Over the past few years, Maximus has improved wages and salaries, reduced employee health spending out of pocket, and improved work processes and safety. We are constantly looking for ways to ensure that Maximus is the employer of choice ”.

At the height of the pandemic, their hourly wage increased to $ 15 an hour. The wage increase came into effect just before President Joe Biden’s decree required all federal contract workers to be paid this rate.

Workers say their job requires a skill set that deserves a pay rise. Employees regularly help callers navigate complex government programs such as Medicare and the health insurance market. They say they deserve wages that are closer to those federal workers who don’t work for contract firms – especially as inflation continues to drive up the cost of living.

The energy was high on Tuesday. Even the workers who were not on strike drove their horns in support of the people.

Murray, a Medicare employee, paced the assembled group with a portable microphone and a speaker on wheels, warming his coworkers. She encouraged them to share their own stories by chanting “let’s talk about it.”

“We want a change,” Murray roared into his microphone. “And we don’t mean pence.”

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