The civil rights and labor movements came together to mark the 60th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom this past weekend, providing an opportunity to both celebrate the progress we have made while also facing the hard truth that much of the work of that march and of our movements remains unfinished.
The organizers of the 1963 march were laser-focused on demanding that elected officials use federal power to advance racial and economic justice throughout the country. They called for guaranteed employment in “dignified jobs at decent wages” for a national minimum wage that would provide a “decent standard of living” and for anti-discrimination rules for both the federal government and its contractors. Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the pressure brought by the Civil Rights Movement helped to pass the 1965 Service Contract Act, a law introduced just months after the March on Washington that established labor standards for federal service contracts, and Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 executive order strengthening anti-discrimination requirements for federal contractors and creating affirmative measures to counter historic exclusion.
The status of frontline workers in the federal government is a perfect example of the work that remains. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in advancing opportunities for Black Americans to access real economic advancement through federal government jobs, but this progress has been eroded in recent years by the use of contractors to create a second tier of federal service workers.
Workers from one of these contractors joined the 60th Anniversary March and spoke from the stage. Their employer, Maximus receives billions of dollars from the federal government while its workers, many of whom are Black women in the Deep South, struggle with low pay, paltry benefits and dead-end jobs. Maximus is the federal government’s largest call center contractor, and its single largest contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is valued at $6.6 billion over nine years. Maximus operates 12 call centers on behalf of CMS, employing an estimated 10,000 workers to answer 1-800 lines for Medicare and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Federally Facilitated Marketplace.
Employees at these call centers, which are almost all located in the South, are largely women of color. Workers at the Maximus call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for example, are about 86% people of color and 85% women. For years, many Maximus call center workers have struggled to provide the basic necessities for their families and report needing to access both public and private safety net programs to make ends meet. Deondra Bridges, a customer service representative at Maximus in Hattiesburg, Mississippi is a mother of five who has had to use Medicaid to access healthcare for her children and has used payday loans to make ends meet. She struggles to pay for critical needs such as prescription medications for her children and batteries for her daughter’s hearing aid. Deondra traveled with a group of her co-workers to participate in this week’s March on Washington to bring attention to the struggles that she and her co-workers face.
On November 1, 2022, at the start of the ACA open enrollment period, Maximus workers held the largest strike of non-union workers in the South in recent history, when 500 workers struck for better pay, protections from abusive callers, especially racist and sexist abuse, and downtime between calls to provide relief from the crushing pace of back-to-back calls. In response, their employer has offered no meaningful improvements and even chose to lay off more than 700 workers with less than two weeks’ notice right after Mother’s Day this spring.
In March 2023, NAACP and CWA released a report exposing significant racial inequities at Maximus. The report shows that while Black and Latina women make up nearly 50% of the company’s frontline workforce, they only represent 5% of executives. White men, on the other hand, make up only 9% of frontline workers but account for nearly 50% of Maximus executives. The report also found that workers interviewed at Maximus’ CMS call centers felt they had no clear paths to career advancement and were stuck in the lowest-paid positions.
Workers at the federal call centers run by Maximus are proudly continuing the fight for racial and economic justice symbolized by the 1963 March on Washington. Economic insecurity, disparities in treatment, and lack of equal opportunities should be relics of the past, not the everyday struggles of the present. The Biden administration has made clear that it stands for racial equity and economic justice throughout the federal government. It is time to investigate Maximus’ labor practices to ensure that we hold this contractor accountable to the highest standards of justice.
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