HATTIESBURG, Miss. — About a dozen call-center workers dressed in matching red t-shirts marched beneath the skylights over the old Cloverleaf Center food court on Wednesday to deliver a list of demands to their employer, Maximus. The company, which is housed in a section of the old mall that was once Waldoff’s department store, contracts with the federal government to handle calls about government health-care programs.
Unless Maximus agrees to meet workers’ demands, the employees plan to strike in Hattiesburg and at other locations across the county on Tuesday, Nov. 1, which is the first day of open enrollment for Affordable Care Act coverage. Maximus, which is based in Virginia, employs between 600 and 800 call-center workers throughout the year in Hattiesburg and about 10,000 across all 12 of its health-care call centers nationwide. The workers also handle calls from Medicare recipients.
“It’s very important for someone like me, someone small, to strike against a big entity and show that the magnitude of the people is powerful and we demand change,” Christina Jimenez, a single mother of three who has worked at Maximus for three years, told the Mississippi Free Press. She was sitting in the food court, where workers at the mall’s remaining Chinese and BBQ restaurants were preparing food on Wednesday.
The workers are demanding a pay raise to at least $25 an hour, up from the current minimum of $15 minimum per hour. Mississippi follows the national minimum wage law of $7.25 an hour.
“The main reason we are striking is because the wages we are paid now, we can’t live off of. Being a single mother, I can’t at all,” Jimenez said. “I get paid $15 and some change.”
In a statement to the Mississippi Free Press on Friday morning, Maximus said the company “welcomes the opportunity to work directly with our employees and discuss and hopefully resolve these concerns.”
The workers are also demanding more break time and policies regarding abusive callers. Workers said they are regularly subjected to racist, sexist and otherwise incendiary rhetoric from angry callers. In a press release Thursday, the Hattiesburg call-center workers said they want “clear policies that protect them from abusive calls, including the ability to disconnect or escalate calls immediately without fear of punishment.”
“We want to be able to get at least 30 minutes per shift to decompress from a caller,” Jimenez told the Mississippi Free Press. “Because if it’s someone who is very agitated, you’re going to get that agitation and you’re forced to stuff that agitation and go onto the next call. … And if we’re trying to do our best, we want to be treated like the best as well. We come in every day. We put extra hours in every day.”
The call-center worker described a call two weeks earlier in which a caller told her she was a “b*tch” and “everything but a child of God.”
“I was being told that I was nothing, basically. And I wasn’t able to take a moment of quiet (before I was) forced into the next call,” she added.
On another occasion, Jimenez recalled, she was forced into the role of counseling a caller who was threatening to commit suicide. She did praise her supervisors for “working with me and working with the person” on that day, however.
Thursday’s press release said Tiffany Murray, a Hattiesburg Maximus worker, once endured “sexually explicit remarks by the same caller two days in a row,” but that a supervisor told her “nothing could be done.”
“She made me feel like I just should’ve never said anything,” the press release quoted Murray saying.
In the company’s statement, Maximus said it “respects the dignity and wellbeing of our employees.”
“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,” the Maximus statement said. “If a caller is persistently inappropriate or obscene, or uses derogatory or disrespectful language, our employees are empowered to immediately end the call. They are not required to warn the abusive caller that the call is being terminated and are not required to ask their supervisor for permission to disconnect a call.”
The workers planning to strike are part of Call Center Workers United, a national organization that works with Communication Workers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based labor union that represents around half a million telecom and media workers nationwide.
Workers at Maximus’ Hattiesburg location have participated in several strikes with support from CWA in recent years. Jiminez said next Tuesday’s strike will be the third she’s participated in since working for the company.
“Our first strike was a very big strike. It was to get our deductible down,” she said. “And our deductible is $4,500. I have health issues, my kids have health issues, so I have to go to the doctor almost every month and still have to pay a copay of $113 every time I go. I can’t do that. I have to decide whether to go to the doctor or get food at the end of the day. So it’s just very important for us to stand together and strike and demand what we deserve. If we don’t, no one else is going to do it.”
In Maximus’ statement to the Mississippi Free Press today, the Virginia-based company said it has already taken steps to improve employee pay and benefits.
“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,” the statement said. “We continue to look for ways to assure that Maximus is an employer of choice.”
The company also said it “provides reasonable and flexible break policies” and that employees “can request bathroom breaks at any time and employees who work 8 hours can take two 15-minutes rest breaks in addition to their half hour lunch.”
Johnny DuPree, the former mayor of Hattiesburg and a Democratic candidate U.S. House candidate for the 4th Congressional District in South Mississippi, joined the workers as they marched to the door on Wednesday along with Democratic Hattiesburg Ward 2 City Councilwoman Deborah Delgado. A security guard escorted Delgado out of Maximus’ suite after she attempted to enter, saying only workers were allowed inside.
After the workers exited the suite, they said that workplace leaders had refused to accept the petition and their list of demands. But Maximus later told the Mississippi Free Press that the company did receive the petition and list of demands in the form of an email.
Thursday’s press release says that more than 650 call-center workers plan to strike at some of Maximus’ largest call centers on Nov. 1, including the Hattiesburg location and others in Bogalusa, La., London, Ky., and Chester, Va.
Civil rights leader Rev. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, plans to join striking Maximus workers outside Cloverleaf Mall on Nov. 1 along with CWA members and NAACP officials.
This story has been updated to note that Maximus received the workers’ petition and list of demands by email.