More than 40 call center workers from Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia and Texas traveled to Tysons, Va., outside the nation’s capital on Friday to protest at the headquarters of government contractor Maximus.

They planned to deliver a letter signed by 12,000 community supporters to the company’s management, asking for higher wages and better health benefits.

Maximus employs nearly 38,000 workers worldwide as a federally contracted company that provides services to the government, including help lines for Medicare and Affordable Care Act customers. Employees operating these lines have been organizing to form a union and held strikes over the last few months.

“I feel like it’s going to bring change,” said Rhoda Bridges, who has worked at the Bogalusa, Louisiana, call center for five years. “It has to bring change.”

Contracted call center workers make, on average, less than their counterparts who are direct federal employees, according to 2021 data from the White House Office of Personnel Management. For example, the average salaries for full-time call center workers in the Social Security Administration or IRS are in the $50,000s, while Maximus workers make around $35,000 in base pay, according to Communications Workers of America, which represents private and public sector employees in 1,200 local unions.

Secretary Treasurer Sara Steffens said in a phone interview that CWA is helping with logistics, like funding travel for protesters. Many of them, including Bridges, took vacation time to bring their concerns to Washington.

A spokesperson for Maximus said the company has already taken steps to address concerns by workers. In April, Maximus cut health care deductibles in half to $2,500. Workers also secured a pay bump after President Biden’s executive order increased federal minimum wage to $15. And Maximus provides employees with paid time off, among other benefits listed in its job postings.

Some of the workers, including 34-year-old Victoria Yawn, say more needs to be done to compensate for inflation raising the cost of groceries, gas and other costs of living.

“At $15 an hour, having to support my children and support a home, I cannot afford to see my doctor,” the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, resident said. Her income, she says, also makes it difficult to move out of her parents’ house.

Another Maximus employee, Hayley Jefcoat, also works in Hattiesburg. The 28-year-old has diabetes and requires special hearing equipment. With gas prices topping $5 in recent weeks, sticker shock at the grocery store and doctors’ bills, Jefcoat said it’s been hard sometimes living paycheck to paycheck.

Jefcoat makes $16.45 per hour. She’s also the primary caretaker for her ailing father, who she lives with. A living wage for one working adult in a two-person household in Hattiesburg is $24.17, according to MIT.

“I’ve had to put my mental health care to the side to focus on paying everything and paying off bills for my physical health,” she said.

Service Contract Act

Eileen Rivera, a Maximus spokesperson, said the company is limited in its ability to change wages and benefits. As a government contractor, the company is tied to the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act of 1965.

“Maximus is committed to providing fair and competitive wages and benefits to our employees across all of our locations as allowed by our contracts,” said Rivera in an email. “Maximus’ ongoing efforts to improve employee wages and benefits are limited by the outdated provisions of the Service Contract Act. Maximus supports several efforts, including urging Congress and the Biden Administration to modernize the SCA for the benefit of federal contract workers across the nation.”

For those working on government contracts worth more than $2,500, the legislation guarantees wages no less than the rates found prevailing in the locality. Simply put: the act, which applies to other companies including Maximus, tethers wages for workers based on where they live. This statute was amended in 1976, so its benchmarks are years behind today’s cost of living, Rivera said.

CWA said the act sets the floor for wages and benefits, not the ceiling.

“Under the SCA, if workers form a union and collectively bargain for better pay and healthcare, Maximus can seek a price adjustment from CMS to cover these added costs,” a CWA spokesperson said via email.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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