A new film and books about organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin bring attention to the crucial, hidden tradition of practical radicalism.
As a federal customer service representative, I help seniors access the healthcare they need through Medicare, often handling hundreds of calls per day to sign people up, answer their questions, help them navigate billing, and more.
I am an expert on these programs, but the hard truth is that despite working for the largest federal call center contractor, Maximus, I don’t have access to affordable health coverage for myself and my three children and my pay is so low I’m struggling to stay afloat. This is why I’m going on strike today with hundreds of my co-workers who are experiencing similar struggles.
I care deeply about the work that I do and the people that I help at the Maximus Federal call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It’s not easy navigating our healthcare system, and I take pride in making sure that the process is as painless as possible for seniors who, oftentimes, are extremely frustrated. Sadly, as a worker at Maximus, I know that feeling all too well.
Unlike customer service workers directly employed by the government, who are paid living wages and have access to good benefits, I make $16.20 per hour, the minimum allowed for federal contract workers. It is almost impossible to pay bills as a parent on Maximus’s wages. My children and I live in a home that’s owned by my children’s grandparents — if it wasn’t for their help, we’d likely be homeless.
While Maximus rakes in billions in federal dollars that benefit its shareholders and executives, I’ve had to go without meals to ensure my children have food on the table. Over a year ago, my son had an allergic reaction and had to go to the emergency room. I still have medical debt from that visit because my health insurance from Maximus doesn’t cover a lot of costs and I can’t afford to pay the bill. I even had to let my son go without glasses last school year because I couldn’t afford to purchase new ones when they broke.
Nobody should have to endure this kind of hardship, and especially not when they’re working for a company with a $6.6 billion federal contract that has spent $20 million on CEO pay and hundreds of millions of dollars on stock buybacks over the last three years.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one struggling to feed and support their family while working at Maximus. A new report shows that nine in ten surveyed workers at Maximus report having medical debt or having to avoid or postpone medical treatment due to concerns about cost, and 91% of Maximus workers report earning significantly less than the living wage needed to sustain a household with children in the areas where they live and work.
Our employer is well aware of these issues. Recently, in the call center where I work, Maximus announced a program that asks us to donate used clothing for co-workers who may not be able to afford new clothes for themselves and their families.
In places like Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Texas and Louisiana, many of my coworkers are Black and Latina women like myself, who make up close to a majority of the lowest-paid workers at the company. This is not a coincidence.
We have been sounding the alarm for years about low wages and poor working conditions at the company, and we’ve been disappointed by the Biden Administration’s failure to make things better.
The Biden Administration pays Maximus to run its Affordable Care Act and Medicare call centers. They have the power to use public money to discourage contractors from funneling money into their CEOs’ pockets and instead ensure living wages and fair employment practices.
Yet, the Biden Administration decided to award this company another massive contract just last year, and hasn’t taken any steps to address our demands for living wages and affordable healthcare.
Workers at Maximus are joining together to say we can’t feed our families or take them to the doctor with campaign slogans, statements of principles and photo ops.
We need the Biden Administration to follow through on its commitment to use federal dollars to create good jobs and to end the two-tier system in which we are expected to do similar work to federal employees but aren’t paid enough to support our families.
The Biden Administration says they believe healthcare is a right not a privilege, that federal money should be used to create good jobs, and that Black women are the backbone of their coalition. Today, I’m joining hundreds of my coworkers in putting down our headsets, walking off the job and sending a clear message to the Biden Administration: Prove it.