Image: Getty Images Stock Photo
Call center workers who help Americans navigate the country’s complicated healthcare system say they can barely afford healthcare themselves and that COVID has spread rapidly through their offices in Louisiana and Mississippi. On Wednesday, employees at Maximus, a federal contractor that, among other things, provides customer service for the Medicare and Affordable Care Act healthcare exchanges, wrote an open letter to their CEO saying that they are "gravely concerned about the recent skyrocketing cases of COVID across our country and in our call centers."
The employees say they are afraid that co-workers with COVID are showing up to work because they can’t afford to take time off. "Mississippi and Louisiana are again considered hot zones for COVID-19. According to the CDC, Forrest county where the Hattiesburg site is located has a vaccination rate of less than 50% and yet we understand that Maximus held large in-person ‘vaccinated’ classes of trainees that are sitting shoulder to shoulder, mask-less even as the CDC recommends KN95 masks be worn by vaccinated people since Omicron is so transmissible," the letter states.Maximus has a federal contract to run the support staff for Medicare and the ACA. It employs more than 30,000 people, 10,000 of them work in call centers in nine states. Maximus employees told Motherboard that they’ve been battling COVID in the workplace for almost two years. In the letter, the employees are demanding six specific things. They want Maximus to provide high quality masks, allow anyone to work from home, notify employees when there’s a COVID case in the building, perform contact tracing to better help staff know their risk level, force in-person training to be socially distanced and masked, and change the sick time policy.
According to employees, Maximus employees do not earn sick time. They can take one day off to test for COVID, but any missed days due to the illness come out of their PTO. Full time employees earn time off at a rate of 2 hours per pay period. Temporary and part time employees don’t earn PTO at all.“When workers have to use our scarce PTO to take COVID leave, this incentivizes workers to come to the site sick, especially if you do not have any additional leave stored up,” Sheree Collier, a Maximus employee in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who recently tested positive for COVID, said in a statement. “Most of us cannot afford to lose pay.”Collier has long been vocal about the problems at Maximus. She told Motherboard she has an underlying health condition and has been worried for two years about what might happen. “I was going to be working from home,” she told Motherboard on the phone. “But there was a requirement that you had to have 20 megabytes per second [internet speed to work from home] …but come to find out the only thing they had in my area was 18 megabytes. And I tried every company there was. So I’ve been in the building ever since December 2020.” William Magnant, who works at the Chester, Virginia call center, said it’s very difficult to keep people who can’t work from home safe. “It’s really hard to observe social distance in a space like a call center,” Magnant told Motherboard.
“Maximus has been adapting our approaches to employee safety as the pandemic has evolved since March 2020,” Maximus told Motherboard in a statement. “Throughout this time, we have been following CDC guidelines for site operations, personal protection, cleaning, contact tracing, and vaccination recommendations while also adhering to local or jurisdictional requirements at all our locations.”Maximus call center workers spend their days helping people sign up for medicare and low cost healthcare plans on the exchange. Their own insurance is much less reliable. According to a study by the Communications Workers of America, Maximus employees' base healthcare plans cost $1,000 more than the U.S. national average for similar plans. The deductible for the basic plan is $4,500. For $162.50 a month, an employee can purchase a plan with a $1,500 deductible.“It’s disheartening to know you can do the Affordable Care Act for someone and I don’t have reliable insurance,” Collier said. “Where they have a $0 or $25 deductible and mine is $4,500. That’s crazy.”In the letter, Maximus employees are asking for 5 days of paid leave if an employee tests positive for COVID and 10 days of paid leave if they’re symptomatic. In its statement, Maximus denied it wasn’t doing contact tracing and said it was following protocols. “To be clear, Maximus conducts contact tracing in all our facilities for confirmed positive cases and individuals who were exposed to a positive case. It is our policy to notify affected employees,” it said. “Our on-site operations remain at a reduced capacity allowing for social distancing. Work-from-home flexibility is determined on a case-by-case basis and is an option for some employees. We require employees to wear masks and complete daily health assessments using our health screening app. We offer paid time off options for employees when they do not pass their daily health screening, test positive for COVID-19, require isolation, or need a vaccination, and provide an incentive for any employee who completes their vaccine series.”