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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 allowing millions of Americans to access affordable health coverage for the first time. Recently, my co-workers 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 from our employer.

We work for a company called Maximus, Inc., one of the largest federal contractors in the country with a $5.4 billion contract to manage federal Medicare and ACA call centers. Maximus employs 10,000 workers predominantly in the South and Southwest 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 was set as low as possible, and even after recent increases, Maximus still pays us nearly 40% less than federal employees who do similar jobs. Many of us receive no paid sick leave from Maximus, even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our healthcare plan is extremely expensive, requiring us to cover thousands of dollars in deductibles out of our low wages. When we have organized and spoken up, Maximus has responded with a campaign of anti-union intimidation.

Black women like me and other people of color make up a majority of the workers in Maximus’ federal call centers. Our strike focuses on the call centers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Bogalusa, Lousiana, communities with long histories 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 top-level 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 of the nice-sounding diversity pledges by the CEO will not help me and my co-workers pay our bills, support our families or go to the doctor.

The Biden administration has made clear commitments to advancing racial equity and supporting workers to organize unions, including in the federal workforce. But as the largest federal call center contractor, Maximus has not aligned with Biden’s values. Instead, the company has repeatedly sought to intimidate us and undermine our efforts to organize our union and bargain for better working conditions. This is unacceptable from any employer, especially from one that receives billions of dollars in public money every year.

My co-workers and I believe deeply in the work that we do. We are called every day to carry out the promise of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare to help our fellow Americans access healthcare. 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 have had enough.

It is time to honor our essential work with middle-class wages and benefits, and with the opportunity to form our union free from intimidation. So for us, labor rights are civil rights. We strike this week for our families, for each other and for a future in which federal jobs like ours do not leave us in the dead-end of poverty — struggling to survive — but offer pathways to the middle class and justice for all.


Mya Harris is a Maximus call center worker from Louisiana.