Despite the national surge in COVID-19 cases, the giant federal healthcare contractor Maximus has now directed managers and supervisors to not approve any COVID-19 leave requests, and to not refer employees to human resources for COVID leave, between now and the end of the Open Enrollment Period (OEP) for Medicare (Dec. 7) and the ACA Federally Facilitated Marketplace (Dec. 15). This “COVID-19 leave blackout” applies to the thousands of Maximus employees who respond to Medicare and ACA calls. While some employees are now working remotely, many are also still working out of Maximus’ 11 call centers that handle Medicare and ACA calls.
“I feel like I’m putting myself back at risk, and they don’t care,” said Sylvia Walker, who works at the Maximus call center in Bogalusa, La. “COVID is very much alive in this city and in this state where I live. The people you encounter on the phones are already stressed. They’re feeling lonely, they call, they cry, they are distraught and we have to deal with that. The company shouldn’t be adding additional stress on us and putting policies in place that could put us, our families, and our communities at risk of contracting a deadly virus when we are working hard to serve the public.”
Maximus also recently informed workers of devastating changes to their individual health coverage that will go into effect next year. The company announced that deductibles will increase to $4,500 next year from the current rate of $2,500, and their maximum out-of-pocket expenses will increase by 20%, to $6,000, in 2021. Under the newly announced plan, workers’ coinsurance will increase from 20% to 30%. This year, employees have a new option to enroll in a “buy-up plan” with a lower deductible and coinsurance, but requires workers to pay nearly $2,000 in premiums per year. Such premium expenses are unaffordable for a workforce that mostly earns between $10 and $15 an hour.
“With these changes, almost everything I need currently for my health care is subject to a $4,500 deductible,” said Christopher Thomas, who works at the Maximus call center in Lawrence, Kan. “Now seeing my neurologist will cost me about $500 per visit and my meds that they prescribe are now basically unaffordable to me with this new plan. What kind of employer guts medical coverage in the middle of a global pandemic?”
Maximus is a giant outsourcing company that has a $5.5 billion contract with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to operate 11 call centers in nine states (Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Utah, and Virginia) handling Medicare and ACA Federal Marketplace inquiries. It also has numerous state government healthcare administration contracts, which include contracts for running state call centers. Maximus has also received several high profile COVID-19-related state contracts for contact tracing and supplemental unemployment insurance assistance. Under its federal arm, the company handles calls for the CDC providing Americans health and safety information about COVID-19. In April, NBC News reported on how a whistleblower at its call center in Hattiesburg, Miss. who was hired to answer calls about COVID-19 was exposed to the virus on her first week on the job.
Since before the pandemic hit, workers at Maximus call centers responding to Medicare and ACA calls have been organizing to join the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to address low wages and poor working conditions, but the company responded by running an aggressive anti-union campaign. Even during the pandemic, Maximus has ignored calls from the workers for Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell to meet with their organizing committee to address pressing safety issues and access to and implementation of COVID-19 leave policies.
Instead of responding to its workers’ demands to meet directly with them, Maximus has engaged in a PR campaign about its policies around COVID, while workers at their call centers have reported problems around the adequacy, enforcement, and accessibility of those policies.