Maximus call center employees begin strike at Chester location
Employees at Maximus, a Tysons Corner-based company contracting with the federal government to handle calls about Medicare and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, are calling for better working conditions and pay at its Chester call center and others across the country.
A small group of employees hand-delivered a strike notice to the Chester call center Tuesday, where about 1,700 customer service staff members work.
According to a spokesperson for Communications Workers of America, the vast majority of employees went on strike at a Maximus center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as well as hundreds at one in Bogalusa, Louisiana – compared to just a handful in Chester. A spokesperson for Maximus, however, told VPM News that fewer than 200 employees participated in the strike across 10 facilities, including two in Chester.
Organizers told VPM News that a contradictory policy about handling abusive callers discourages employees from protecting themselves. It states that Medicare call service representatives can terminate calls without warning if a caller brings up inappropriate or obscene topics of conversation, uses derogatory or disrespectful language, or demonstrates excessive behavior such as yelling or screaming.
However, the policy also states that an employee should “generally give the caller two warnings before terminating the call,” as reiterated in a script that encourages employees to use their “soft skills to manage the situation.”
“It should be more clear,” said James Weir, a Maximus call center employee who works remotely and participated in the Chester strike Tuesday. He said he recently had to deal with a call that started out with three minutes of screaming.
“If somebody is saying slurs, is saying things that are racist or sexist and wrong … you should be allowed to disconnect,” Weir said. “You shouldn’t have to warn people not to say that over the phone.”
This has been a common problem for call center employees at other companies, according to reporting from ProPublica.
After listening to the screaming caller, Weir said he asked his supervisor for a quick break from calls. He said he has a good supervisor who allowed him to do that.
“That’s not the case for everybody who works here,” Weir said. “We don’t have time to compose ourselves. We don’t have time to get it together.”
The workers are also requesting an additional 30 minutes per full-time shift when they’re not expected to be answering calls. Weir said that’s on top of a 30-minute unpaid lunch break and three 15-minute breaks per 10-hour shift. Employees currently get two 15-minute breaks during an 8-hour shift.
Weir said the 30-minute additional break is especially important because call center employees are supposed to adhere to a strict schedule. If they get too far off of it, it could result in disciplinary action.
“You can get in trouble for things like staying on a long call to assist somebody, and having it mess up your breaks and lunch,” Weir said. “We care about the people that we’re helping … it just doesn’t make any sense.”
A Maximus spokesperson did not respond to questions about adherence and compliance to the set schedule nor the request for the 30-minute additional break. But the spokesperson said the company’s policy about handling abusive calls was “very clear” and that the company’s “employees are empowered to immediately end the call” when confronted with abuse.
The spokesperson added, “Maximus welcomes the opportunity to work directly with our employees and discuss and hopefully resolve their concerns.”
Thomas Napper, local Richmond CWA organizer, said adding 30 minutes of non-call time for employees is a no-brainer. He does call center work for Verizon and said they already have a policy like this in place.
“When it comes to call center work, it is back-to-back-to-back. There’s no room to breathe,” Napper said. “When you’re dealing with the public, there’s such highs and lows on every call … you definitely need some time to actually pull yourself back together.”
Napper pointed to another Maximus policy that he said needs to change: the policy about bathroom breaks.
According to a company spokesperson, “employees can request a bathroom break at any time. Paid bathroom breaks taken in addition to the regular 15-minute paid rest breaks are limited to six minutes, unless circumstances discussed privately with a supervisor warrant a longer break. No one is denied a break; no one is shamed for taking a break.”
“They’re docking people’s pay when you go over the six minutes … it’s insane,” Napper said. “Some of the policies here are very archaic and not anything that you would think you would see with a company doing business with America in 2022.”
While the Maximus employees haven’t formed a union with CWA yet, Napper said, “We’ve been doing different actions to force [Maximus’] hand” because the company “doesn’t do much negotiation.”
Employees are also calling for pay to be raised to $25 per hour. The starting rate at the Chester location, where Maximus is currently hiring for multiple customer service representatives, is $17.11 per hour.
Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 1 at 4:44 p.m. to include additional information for a Maximus spokesperson.