Maximus Call Center Workers and the Injustice of Low-Bid Federal Contracting
This report centers the voices and experiences of call center workers who work for a company called Maximus, which the federal government contracts with to provide customer service to those trying to access critical public healthcare benefits through Medicare or the Affordable Care Act federal marketplace.
Workers allege that Maximus has failed to pay the wages that workers were due and has failed to ensure the call centers are safe. Their stories illustrate how a federal contracting policy that prioritizes the lowest cost over the best quality hurts the communities in which the workers live and jeopardizes the quality of services that callers receive.
These workers, located across 11 states, are calling on Maximus, and the federal government to recognize the fundamental human rights to a living wage and just compensation, the right to organize, provision of adequate heath care and sick leave, safe workplaces especially during a health emergency, access to information about company policies and practices, and a workplace free of harassment, exploitation, discrimination, and favoritism.
“It’s a very stressful environment. Some people take absences because they are overwhelmed. I have felt that way. There were times when I may have worked ten days without a day off. I want to see a change. I want a better work environment for my co-workers. With change it could be a really great place.”
“Some callers want to talk. I just listen for a few minutes. If I can make them feel a little bit better than I think I’ve done my job. We’re just asking for you (Maximus) to be fair. We deserve better pay, better working conditions, better working hours.”
“I know my worth, I know what I should be paid. I’m good at what I do. You don’t have to pat me on the back, but you need to pay me what I’m worth.”
If you are part of an organization that wants to express support for federal contract workers, click here to urge Pres. Biden to use his executive authority to create a more equitable, just, and democratic system of federal contracting by quickly adopting federal contracting and purchasing reforms.
The number of phone calls you get. Especially during open enrollment, it’s never ending. There’s no time to sit and think for even a second. You can’t focus.
My supervisor… the first time I met him, during the busiest season of open-enrollment, I forgot to see him and was going late on my break so I forgot to come back and do the code to let the computer know what we’re doing. They just want to keep track of you to make sure you’re the obedient worker… He does these emails that are littered with “if you’re late by a couple of minutes” he circles it, he highlights when you’re late from your break. It’s like Dickens shit.”
I tell you what, I’d be able to relax and feel like it’s not…I’m not scraping…I’m not living on the edge of things. I could live on my own. I could take care of my essentials and not be concerned about…and the way you’re treated, they don’t treat us right. They think they can do whatever they want and they’ll get away with it. I wouldn’t worry that they would drop the hammer about coming back one minute from break. It wouldn’t be six-minute bathroom breaks where you have to run there. They wouldn’t restrict our bathroom usage.
People could take care of their families without having to depend on government assistance—food stamps, section 8 housing, food banks…these weren’t meant as the way for people with a job to survive. And if you’re not doing well, your kids aren’t doing well either.
Helping somebody during a tough time. Sometimes they can be negative, that just comes with the job, but when you help somebody navigate what remains of the social safety net...to be able to help somebody understand what Medicaid is or that they are eligible for it. You can make a real tangible benefit in somebody’s life by telling someone about a government program. Sometimes it’s food stamps, social security waitlists, it’s supposed to be Medicare. What can I do to help this person in a difficult situation? People are older, are in tight situations where they’re at the bottom of the…they’re struggling for subsistence.
I’ll tell you why I do this work. The Affordable Care Act was passed on March 23rd in 2010, and I know this because I was standing in a parking lot with money I’d scraped together to buy my seizure medication and my dean called me to reactivate my student health plan because the ACA passed. Instead of paying $700, I paid $40. If the ACA hadn't passed I wouldn't have graduated college. I wanted a chance to give people that security, to give back in some way. So I cross-trained into the ACA and I've worked every open enrollment period from the beginning in 2014.
When I was trained under Medicare the trainer said, ‘I want you to think about your grandparents, how would you want them treated on the call?’ and that’s what I did, on every single call I took. I’m in this job for the consumers. I try to meet them where they're at. If that means taking extra time to explain how insurance works or how different plans at the same coverage level work, it's worth it. I'm disabled and I know how difficult navigating healthcare can be, so if I can give someone information that I wish I'd known and it makes their lives easier. I love my job, but I just can’t anymore, not with the way I’m treated and the amount of money that I’m making.
It’s getting harder every year to make ends meet. I’m a single guy with a cat and I can't do it anymore. We’ve lost some of the most experienced agents who have children or grandchildren and they couldn’t work with Maximus because they wouldn't allow any flexibility with scheduling. They were great agents. It’s so bad, they really looked out for people. You’re losing CSRs who are subject matter experts. A new CSR isn’t going to know that, so who suffers? The taxpayer. Just because Maximus wants to turn a profit off public dollars.
I’ve been enrolling consumers into plans that I wish I had. If I were talking to me on the phone I would not recommend the plan that they’re putting me on. They’re offering us a health savings account with a high deductible health plan. The most I can contribute to a HSA is less than my deductible. I’m watching myself and all my coworkers do things we tell others not to do. When a consumer tells me she’s rationing her insulin I don’t want to have to tell her I’m rationing my seizure medicine.
Nine years, no raises and no cost of living raises. Every time the contract gets bought out it gets worse and worse. Maximus is the worst. We’re under a pandemic and we aren’t getting paid. I got COVID at work, somebody came in sick and had to lie because she knew she wouldn’t get paid for 14 days. They sent an email and said we wouldn’t get paid to be out during open enrollment.
Mentally they have broken me. I’m so angry at them and I bring that home. I dread going to work every day. I walk into the door and I turn into a zombie, I’m a robot. That’s not a good feeling. I used to be this bubbly high energy person, but this takes its toll. I give them so much of my time and my energy, and they just don’t care.
Listening to a crying mom say she had a sick kid and couldn’t get something covered, and I’m able to get the problem solved. I know the rules, I know what to do. I had time to sit down and read a lot. I learned what’s in the Affordable Care Act. I had a guy who was almost going to commit suicide and I turned his day around. I got off the phone and I fell apart, the supervisor said I don’t know how you kept it together and I said, “I had to.” I needed time off the phone to recover, but Maximus frowns on that. They don’t treat us like we’re humans.
I want to sit down with Nancy Pelosi and talk about how hard it is for people out there with health care. We get a lot of abuse and you have to have thick skin. I’m human and I do care and I do want to help people. We need HHS to understand what we do: we need them to give us the tools to help people. They expect us to appease these people and just move on to the next call. I would like to be seen as a partner, if we had more tools and was paid decently…I’ve been there long enough to know the system to solve a problem. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t solving the problem. Come sit with me and listen to me answer my calls. Without us [Call Center Representatives] they’d be lost.
“I’m a single father. It’s very stressful. My son goes to school at 8 and gets off at 2.Fortunately my mom lives with me so she can pick him up from school. But when COVID was happening I had to try to juggle everything. They don’t accommodate you at all, they say ‘maybe you need to go part time."
“After taxes I’m making like $600 bucks and some change. We’re in the same bracket as the lower end that should be getting better benefits. We can’t even go on the Exchange because [we receive employer-provided coverage] ….Our deductible is $4500 and out of pocket is $6000.”
My son is on [the Children’s Health Insurance Program]. It’s sad when you say you’re working for the federal government on insurance and your kid is on CHIP. If my mom wasn’t there helping me right now I couldn’t do it, no way. Not on this pay.”
“A woman was upset because she was trying to get insurance but kept hitting a wall because she didn’t have enough hours, the community health centers were like an hour away. I was doing everything in my power to help her. When we started she was in tears, but when we finished she was so happy to just get some help. She couldn’t find any help, she had cancer and the state didn’t expand Medicaid, and the wait to get disability was so long. But by the end of the call she was like, ‘all I wanted was somebody to help me.’ I felt like the king that day, it was like I gave somebody a million dollars. I wish somebody would do that with us.”
I used to work at a casino in Las Vegas, and we had a union. We paid $40 a month for our union fees, but our health insurance was all covered. After 5 years your retirement was vested. I have never worked another job where I enjoyed going to work, because I had no worries. I had three young children at the time and I didn’t have to worry about could I pay the [health] copay or the costs. I went to work feeling great. We went to work with a smile on our face. When those workers got together as a group and organized, they pulled together for everybody on the job, and we all benefitted from it. I’ve worked in nursing homes, hospitals, factories, and they all give you every reason why you shouldn’t organize a union.
If I had better conditions, that employer is going to get better employees because they’re happy when they come to work. To write them up and police them and stand over their shoulder isn’t going to change the situation. You have to change it financially, you have to change the benefits, you have to help those young people with child care. That’ll make the difference. That would change up the dynamics of your work environment. They’ll be more productive on your clock.
If I could talk to lawmakers, I would go over the [Maximus] benefits package because if employees are happy they’re going to do a dynamic job. But if they come in and life is sitting on their shoulders and they’re trying to figure out how to pay the doctors, they’re not going to be able to help beneficiaries.
I’m electing to skip treatments because of the cost, but I need these appointments. I have chest pains. I have numbness in my hands. I’m at a stand-still, I don’t want to keep adding to debt. That just adds even more stress. Do I skip paying my rent to go to the doctor? I had to choose my rent.
I’ve had some really good calls where I completed an application or helped someone, and they say “this is the first time I’ve ever had health insurance” and they let me know how much they appreciate my taking the time and giving them all the information they need to make an informed choice. I love helping people.
And then there are days you just want to throw in the towel because you put up with so much from people on the phone and so much from the supervisors. It’s like working in the ER. The stress is just unbelievable. Supervisors might say you didn’t do this and you didn’t do that, they’re checking your calls and they’re just nit-picky. They have attitudes toward certain people, it’s always something that you didn’t do or you didn’t do right. I don’t know everything, you should be a resource for me.
There’s not nearly enough training, and it degrades me. They complain about something that I haven’t been thoroughly trained on. A lot of things on this job you learn as go...A lot of times as co-workers somebody might have an experience where they can help you and guide you. It’s good when you can talk to them. We used to have meetings to bounce information off of each other… But now months have gone by, it’s all about somebody being in the seat to take the call. If you make me feel like nothing, how am I going to take this call?
There are no new protections. I bought N95 masks the last time the flu came through, and when [Covid-19] came out I started wearing a mask and they asked why would I wear a mask. “I don’t know anything about COVID-19, we have too many people in and out of this building.” I brought Lysol in to spray what I need to spray. They’re not supplying it. You’re not getting a break anymore: when you come back you have to answer health questions, you have to wash your hands with a trickle of water.
Every other cubicle is empty, but we’re still not 6 feet apart. It’s an older building, there are ceiling tiles that aren’t there. It’s a low ceiling. They aren’t sanitizing like they should—there’s trash under my desk that’s been there since last year. There’s a cough drop that’s been under there since September. We used to have some time to do some tidying, now we don’t have time and I feel like I’m not doing that anymore. Believe me I’ve come by cubicles with people with masks under their nose or under their chin, it’s not safe.
I love my job, I love doing what I do, and I love being able to help people and the beneficiaries. But it is a slap in the face to me that I answer questions about insurance—I’m not ignorant or stupid when it comes to this—and you give me a $4500 deductible, not only for my health care but also for the prescriptions that are there to keep me alive. It’s an insult to my intelligence.
To pay the big deductibles, you have to make adjustments. The light bill is the light bill, your gas bill is, your rent is, your car payment is, your insurance it what it is; you can’t negotiate that. Where do you take the fall? It’s in your food…I have to make these sacrifices in food. I have to make these sacrifices in Christmas presents. And, you know, food is not a sacrifice that we should have to negotiate.