An American union is seeking to win more than $100m in back wages from a private call center firm in a move that, if successful, would win the largest wage theft case involving federal contractors in history.
The Department of Labor is currently reviewing several complaints filed by the Communications Workers of America against the federal contractor General Dynamics, a company that operated several call centers across the US under federal contracts.
The CWA estimates thousands of current and former workers at the company stand to receive back pay dating from 2013 – and the case has energized a move to unionize the firm’s workforce. Wage theft is defined as not paying workers the compensation they deserve through things like unpaid overtime or mis-classifying workers.
General Dynamics was acquired in November 2018 by Virginia-based federal contractor Maximus in a $400m deal. Employees argue the working conditions under Maximus haven’t changed since the acquisition, and are pushing to form a union to improve wages, benefits and the work environment.
“Absolutely nothing has changed but the name,” said Railonnie Brooks, a trainer at a Maximus call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that focuses on providing customer service for medicare recipients and the Affordable Care Act marketplace.
“We are not paid what we’re worth,” added Brooks, who noted base employees at the call center make just $10.35 an hour.
Things are not much better further up the management chain, workers say. Tiandra Robinson has also worked at the Maximus call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as an instructor since it opened under General Dynamics in 2013. “Right off the bat, things started to go downhill. My position was reclassified and I ended up making $16.83 an hour and that is the wage I have remained at since 2013,” said Robinson.
She referred to the work conditions at her call center as “deplorable” and cited examples of bed bug infestations in her instruction classrooms.
At Maximus’s call center in Bogalusa, Louisiana, workers who focus on responding to queries about government healthcare services, explained their work environment and restrooms are not kept clean or properly stocked and maintained.
Sylvia Walker has worked at the Bogalusa call center since 2013, and has been reprimanded by management for distributing union flyers in the parking lot.
“I want to be able to organize, not be criticized, not be antagonized or made to feel like someone is watching me. As long as I do my job, in the parking lot I should be able to say whatever I want about the union,” said Walker. “I believe if I give you my best on the job, and I come every day to give my best, you can compensate me with a decent wage. I should not have to go without basic necessities.”
On 20 March 2019, workers attended Maximus’ shareholder meeting in Reston, Virginia, to voice their concerns over how call center workers are treated and to push the company to allow workers to organize a union without intimidation and interference.
“The deck is really stacked against workers because employers have fairly free rein to conduct an anti-union campaign that can be very intimidating for workers and that’s what we’ve seen at General Dynamics and Maximus,” said Alex Van Shaick, an attorney at the Communications Workers of America.
The basis of the complaints revolve around how workers are classified, with the CWA arguing the call center workers are misclassified in lower-paying job titles, given the responsibilities and complexities their jobs entail. Under the law, minimum prevailing wages are set for federal contractors based on location and job duties.
An October 2018 report published by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University found properly classifying Maximus call center workers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, would inject $9.7m annually in the local community through wage increases, and help create nearly 200 jobs over the next four years.
“Call center workers need fairly reclassified jobs, as well as a real freedom to form unions and negotiate higher pay,” said Dr Patrick Dixon, research analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative who authored the report. “Our research shows that these steps would raise area families out of poverty and tackle historical racial and gender pay inequities.”
The Department of Labor declined to comment on the wage theft complaints still in litigation.
A spokesperson for Maximus told the Guardian in an email: “We comply with all wage rates and employee classifications as established by the [Department of Labor]. We are proud of the fact that we provide employees with fair treatment, personal dignity and respect, good working conditions, competitive wages and an excellent benefits package, in addition to opportunities for career advancement.”