Civil rights

Labor rights are civil rights that are not talked about enough

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This month, 12 years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), reforming our broken health insurance system and giving millions of Americans access for the first time to affordable health coverage. Recently, my colleagues and I, the people who answer the phone calls to help millions of Americans access ACA and Medicare benefits, went on strike to demand justice for our employer.

We work for a company called Maximus, Inc., one of the nation’s largest federal contractors with a $5.4 billion contract to run federal Medicare and ACA call centers. Maximus employs 10,000 workers primarily in the South and South West on this contract. Federal jobs are supposed to be good jobs that reward hard work with middle-class pay and benefits, but our jobs are anything but. For years, our pay has been set as low as possible, and even after recent increases, Maximus still pays us nearly 40% less than federal employees in similar jobs. Many of us do not receive any paid sick leave from Maximus, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our healthcare plan is extremely expensive, forcing us to cover thousands of dollars in deductibles on our low wages. When we organized and spoke out, Maximus responded with a campaign of anti-union intimidation.

Black women like me and other people of color make up the majority of Maximus federal call center workers. Our strike is focused on the call centers of HattiesburgMississippi, and Bogalusa, Louisiana, communities with a long history of black workers fighting for justice in the workplace and beyond. Companies like Maximus like to tout their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, but none of the company’s senior executives are black. Recently, 64% of Maximus shareholders supported an independent audit of Maximus’ record on racial equity, including both its treatment of black and brown workers and the impact of its business operations on communities of color. I’m glad to see shareholders taking this issue seriously – at the end of the day, all the CEO’s nice-sounding diversity promises won’t help me and my colleagues pay our bills, support our families, or go to the doctor.

The Biden administration has made a clear commitment to advancing racial equity and help workers organize unions, including in the federal workforce. But as the largest federal call center contractor, Maximus has failed to align with Biden’s values. Instead, the company repeatedly sought to intimidate us and undermine our efforts to organize our union and negotiate better working conditions. This is unacceptable of any employer, especially one that receives billions of dollars in public funds each year.

My colleagues and I deeply believe in the work we do. We are called every day to fulfill the promise of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare to help our fellow Americans access health care. We have done our duty through months of expanded open enrollment periods, through natural disasters and the depth of the pandemic, continuing to answer calls even as our own families struggled with illness, disability and death. . We’ve had enough.

It’s time to honor our essential work with middle-class wages and benefits and with the ability to form our union without intimidation. So for us, labor rights are civil rights. We’re striking this week for our families, for each other, and for a future in which federal jobs like ours don’t leave us stuck in poverty — struggling to survive — but provide pathways to class. average and justice for all.

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Mya Harris is an employee of the Louisiana Maximus call center.