A Call Center Giant Is Responding to COVID-19, But Not Its Own Employees

MAXIMUS workers protest in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo: Communication Workers of America

When Danita McRae’s son developed symptoms of a respiratory infection, she decided to stay home from work. She has thyroid cancer, she told Intelligencer by phone, and she’s at high risk for complications from COVID-19. She wasn’t concerned only for herself. If she had the virus, she didn’t want to spread it to her co-workers at a MAXIMUS call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. But as McRae tells it, she soon realized that if she wanted to stay home, she’d have to fight her own employer. “It makes me want to cry, because it really shouldn’t be the way that it is,” she said. “It was difficult.”

Like all MAXIMUS call-center workers, McRae can only miss 64 hours of work per year. But she had used most of that time to undergo cancer treatment, and by the time COVID-19 struck, she didn’t have much time off to spare. When her husband later tested positive for the virus, and she decided to finally press the company for time off in order to care for him, “it became increasingly difficult.”

“I felt harassed,” she said. “That’s the only way I can put it. I emailed them back and forth, through management, through human capital, which is their HR. They continually called me: ‘I don’t understand. But why do you need this many days off? Well, why can’t he take care of himself? He’s a grown man.’ It got to the point where I said, I don’t even know if I’m going to still have my job. Because I let them know how I felt.” McRae eventually convinced MAXIMUS to give her leave at two-thirds of her regular pay. But she’s still frustrated with her employer, and on May 1, from a safe distance, she joined other MAXIMUS call-center workers in a nationwide, socially distanced protest.

The May Day rally is only the latest symptom of worker unrest for the corporation, which receives federal and state contracts worth billions of dollars to manage enrollment in Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace. Workers in its call centers have been trying to organize a union with the Communications Workers of America for years, and the company’s counterprogramming campaign is so aggressive it ran afoul not just of the union, but of the National Labor Relations Board. In one incident, MAXIMUS supervisors in Louisiana called the local police on workers handing out union material in a parking lot.

Workers and bosses tend to tell conflicting stories about the safety of their workplace. Amazon, for example, has spent the pandemic insisting to the press and various attorneys general that conditions in its warehouses are safe. Whistle-blowers, and the occasional local health inspector, say this isn’t quite the case. The friction the two tales generate spills out into the public. Amazon workers are protesting, too. But a unique dynamic shapes the federal contractor’s internal tensions. Class conflict isn’t just something that happens inside its call centers. Economic disparity is profitable for MAXIMUS, which owes much of its wealth and tremendous size to its speciality in administering welfare programs.

The same pandemic that puts workers like McRae at risk creates lucrative opportunities for MAXIMUS. In its second-quarter earnings call on Thursday, MAXIMUS said it had quickly “pivoted” to handling COVID-19 response efforts for its clients in government, which include the IRS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though Lisa Miles, a company spokesperson, initially told Intelligencer that its contract with the IRS did not mean it had any role administering recent economic stimulus payments to the public, the presentation it gave to shareholders on Thursday claimed that MAXIMUS did in fact support the IRS “to ensure that the Economic Impact Payments were paid in a timely manner, while continuing our normal tax-season support.” Miles later clarified that the company provided “back-office IT support” to the agency. For the HHS, it provides the results of COVID-19 to patients, and due to its contract with the CDC, some call-center workers also answer basic questions about the coronavirus — all while the company violates CDC guidelines in its call centers, workers previously told NBC News. In California, MAXIMUS workers take questions about COVID-19 and state lockdown orders; New Yorkers who think they need tests, meanwhile, may just find themselves on the phone with someone in one of the company’s call centers. The windfall is set to continue. Indiana taxpayers will soon pay the federal contractor $43 million a year to manage the state’s contact-tracing program.

But internally, workers insist that MAXIMUS’s response to the pandemic is lackluster. In interviews with Intelligencer, workers who participated in the May 1 protest and support a union said that the company didn’t provide masks for workers until April 17. While they believe that many of the tasks they perform can be done at home, the company has only just started transitioning a portion of staff to remote work. Others, like McRae, struggle to navigate what they describe as an opaque emergency-leave policy, which forces some to choose between their income and their need to care for a sick loved one.

Before the company provided masks, explained Kristen Runk, who works in a Lawrence, Kansas, call center, workers were expected to bring protective gear from home. MAXIMUS is now supplying what Runk described as “a triangle of material, that’s almost like a dinner napkin, and rubber bands,” used to secure it to the face. “There was somewhere a video you could watch on how to fold it appropriately,” she added. “But I can’t take the time off to go watch a video.”

The mask. Photo: Kristen Runk

Social distancing is also a struggle. In Runk’s call center, MAXIMUS has spaced workers out so they’re six feet apart from each other, but she said some hallways are too narrow for people to maintain an ideal distance. Managers have sanitizing wipes, but workers can only use one per day, and if their shift doesn’t coincide with the usual distribution of wipes, they sometimes don’t get one at all.

In Phoenix, Arizona, Dillon Williams said that MAXIMUS waited months to start training people in his call center to work from home. “They just haven’t been on top of things,” he said. “When they started implementing the work-from-home policy, it was just about who already had the internet and computers. They didn’t ask if we were high risk.”

In a statement to Intelligencer, Miles, the MAXIMUS spokesperson, stressed that “the safety of our employees is our top priority.”

“We are doing everything possible to keep our employees safe as they perform the critical work of keeping essential government services open and accessible to people in need,” she added. MAXIMUS now offers 14 days of “paid administrative leave” for employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting testing, and says that its emergency-sick-leave policy is available for workers with child-care or other caregiving responsibilities. The company also claims that it “immediately” notifies employees if a co-worker has come into contact with a COVID-19-positive person.

But McRae said that doesn’t always happen. Her husband, who works for MAXIMUS answering coronavirus queries for the CDC, “had two exposures that he was never notified of,” she said.

Williams, meanwhile, was given the runaround by the company after he fell ill with symptoms that could be COVID-19. “I tried calling when I felt the symptoms were serious enough. I couldn’t reach the corporate office, other than someone giving me a phone number that led to a recording. Tried emailing the location and only got auto-responses that stated that a ticket was opened, followed up moments later by another one that said the ticket was closed,” he said. After making no progress, he decided to visit the office in person. “I had an unpleasant interaction knocking on the door of HR and having them not answer until I had to knock harder. And then they started yelling at me for having come physically to the location,” he continued.

“The onus is on you every step of the way,” he said, and added, “I just am upset personally that it seems like the overarching trend of their policies has been to save face, and not actually doing the hard, necessary steps to protect their workers.”

Call Center Workers Say Their Giant Employer Endangers Them