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Federal call center workers join March on Washington call attention to workplace inequities

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lailluminator.com – Casey Quinlan – 2023-08-26 14:30:44

Federal call center workers join March on Washington call attention to workplace inequities

by Casey Quinlan, Louisiana Illuminator
August 26, 2023

Call center workers that help Americans navigate the ACA marketplace and Medicare are demanding more paths for advancement, higher pay and more breaks between calls at this year's March on Washington.

They're looking to bring government attention to their cause after previous efforts to get the attention of officials with the Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services have not yielded results.

They say that the issues they are facing are connected to racial and gender inequities at Maximus, a Virginia-based private company that contracts with U.S. Health and Human Services as well as other federal agencies. A 2023 report found only 2% of managers with frontline customer service experience were internally promoted.

Sixty-nine percent of frontline workers were Black, Latino or other people of color, while the same demographics composed only 21% of executives and senior managers, according to the report from NAACP, Communication Workers of America and Strategic Organizing Center.

For the 60th anniversary of the historic march for civil rights and economic opportunities for Black Americans, a group of organizations with a diverse set of focuses — racial justice, labor rights, student debt, LGBTQ equality, and voting rights, to name a few — are gathering in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. The march will begin at the Lincoln Memorial and end at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and 75,000 people are expected to attend.

This march comes on the heels of what has been called a “hot labor summer” after everyone from hotel workers to actors have gone on strike, and UPS drivers secured a generous new contract after threatening to strike.

Maximus employees are hoping to achieve their own gains. Katherine Charles, a call center worker from Tampa, Florida, who came to D.C. for the march, said she wants federal officials to investigate the company because of the way it treats workers.

Keaira Mark, a former call center worker for Maximus, and current Maximus employees Katherine Charles Sasha Tyson and Deondra Bridges in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. The women were in Washington to take part in the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. (Casey Quinlan/States Newsroom)

Maximus has made multiple rounds of layoffs this year. In January, 143 workers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and more than 100 workers in Bogalusa, Louisiana, were laid off and did not receive severance, according to the . In May, Maximus laid off more than 700 workers, who received severance packages.

The CWA filed an unfair labor practice complaint in May, accusing the company of using the layoffs and other union-busting tactics as retaliation for organizing. Call Center Workers United held demonstrations after the layoffs, including a May protest outside of the Department of Health and Human Services office in Washington D.C., and a June protest at a Maximus office building in Chester, Virginia.

Victoria Miller, an organizer at the CWA, said it's been challenging to organize because of all the layoffs this year.

“I don't believe it is fair for a place where the workforce is majority female, single mothers, to be laid off massively without any notice like they have done before …,” she said. “We have a federal contract, but we are not treated as federal employees.”

Keaira Mark, a former Maximus worker who was laid off in May and lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, came to D.C. to march to support the many people she knows who still work there. “Even though I don't work there, I still have friends who work there. My mom still works there,” she said. “We're looking to get more exposure and hopefully community support and government support, and put some pressure on Maximus to change.”

Maximus workers also told States Newsroom that they need more time off between calls, because some of the calls they receive can be abusive, and it's challenging to go right from one like that to the next.

They argue that their employer has enough money to improve working conditions. The business expects to generate $4.875 billion to $4.975 billion in revenue this year, according to Maximus' August investor presentation. Maximus employs more than 35,000 employees in the U.S. and internationally, and its workers handle 7 million contact center inquiries per month and 43 million calls annually about federal health insurance enrollment.

The NAACP, CWA, and SOC wrote to Department of Labor officials in March bringing attention to a lack of workers of color and women in leadership positions at the company, which brought in 48% of its revenue in fiscal year 2022 from U.S. federal services according to the August presentation. The groups said that Maximus should be investigated for what they say is a noncompliance with laws protecting against discrimination.

Maximus employees have engaged in multiple walkouts to bring attention to calls for improved working conditions. In November, call center workers held walkouts in Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana to fight for pay of $25 an hour and more breaks in between their calls. At the time, Maximus said workers received two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour lunch break.

In response to questions about whether Maximus plans to improve working conditions, a spokesperson for the company told States Newsroom in an email, “We are always focused on ways to strengthen benefits for our employees. For example, we improved pay and compensation above the minimum wage and reduced employees' out-of-pocket health care expenses.”

Maximus said it increased pay and compensation before an executive order finalized the minimum wage increase for federal contractors and said it pays call center employees a starting wage of $16.20.

“In certain geographies, and depending on the time of year, Maximus exceeds that wage,” the spokesperson said.

Disclosure: Casey Quinlan was previously a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild as a reporter for the American Independent. The NewsGuild is a sector in the Communications Workers of America.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden touts gun safety record to advocates, as son found guilty on felony charges • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-12 05:00:32

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday touted his administration's efforts to reduce gun violence as the second anniversary of bipartisan gun safety legislation he signed into law approaches.

“Never give up on hope,” Biden said during an annual conference hosted by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

The speech came hours after the president's son Hunter Biden was found guilty in a federal court in Delaware of lying on paperwork related to purchasing a gun and unlawfully possessing that gun, according to media reports.

The federal jury found Hunter Biden, who has struggled with drug addiction, guilty on three related felony charges: lying to a licensed gun dealer, falsely stating on an application for a gun that he was not using drugs and for unlawfully having the gun for 11 days.

He could face up to 25 years in prison, though as a first-time offender his sentence is expected to be much less severe.

The president has avoided publicly commenting on his son's case and he did not mention the verdict in his speech.

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Gaza protest

Shortly after Biden began his speech, he was interrupted by a protester who accused the president of being “complicit” in the high death toll of the Israel-Hamas war. The conflict has killed 35,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip run by the Hamas-controlled government. An agreement over a U.S. backed cease-fire deal remains elusive.

The crowd immediately drowned out the protester. A group of protesters was removed, according to a White House pool report.

Biden tried to calm the crowd.

“That's alright,” he said. “Folks, it's OK, look they care, innocent children have been lost, they make a point.”

Law nears second anniversary

Biden went back to his speech, and thanked the gun safety advocates and survivors “who have turned their pain” into advocacy.

“You've helped power a movement,” Biden said.

The gun safety law Biden signed in 2022 was the most comprehensive federal gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years. It stemmed from two deadly mass shootings less than two weeks apart in 2022.

One was at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered, making it the second-deadliest mass shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

The other was in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist targeted a Black neighborhood and killed 10 Black people in a grocery store.

Worries about guns in school mount as permitless concealed carry law looms

The 2022 law provided $750 million for states to enact “red flag laws,” which allow the courts to temporarily remove a firearm from an individual who is a threat to themselves or others as well as $11 billion in mental health services for schools and families. The law cracked down on straw purchases, illegal transactions in which a buyer acquires a gun for someone else.

The bill also requires those who are under 21 and want to purchase a firearm to undergo a background check that takes into account a review of juvenile and mental health records. It also led to the creation of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

The Justice Department also announced Tuesday it has charged more than 500 people under provisions of the gun safety law to “target the unlawful trafficking and straw-purchasing of firearms.”

The statutes “directly prohibit straw purchasing and firearms trafficking and significantly enhance the penalties for those crimes, providing for up to 15 years in prison,” according to the Justice Department.

“Criminals rely on illegal gun traffickers and straw purchasers to obtain the weapons they use to harm our communities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

More work to do

Biden acknowledged that more needs to be done on gun safety legislation and he called on Congress to ban assault weapons and require universal background checks and safe storage of firearms. In a divided Congress, any gun-related legislation is unlikely to pass.

The last time Congress passed major gun legislation was 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton signed a ban on assault weapons that spanned 10 years. When it expired, Congress did not renew the ban.

Biden also took a jab at his rival, former President Donald J. Trump, and said that he won't tell people to “get over” a mass shooting.

After a school shooting in Perry, Iowa, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said during a campaign speech in Sioux City, Iowa, that while the school shooting that left two dead – an 11-year-old student and the principal – was a “terrible thing that happened,” his advice was to “get over it. We have to move forward.”

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pair of U.S. House Dems add to chorus calling for Alito, Thomas recusals • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Ariana Figueroa – 2024-06-12 05:00:51

Pair of U.S. House Dems add to chorus calling for Alito, Thomas recusals

by Ariana Figueroa, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats echoed Senate colleagues Tuesday in calling for U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to recuse themselves from Jan. 6 cases, and for congressional Republicans to support passing an enforceable ethics code for the entire bench.

Reps. Jamie Raskin, ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, and vice ranking member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought together fellow progressive Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse with experts and advocates for a roundtable discussion on the “ethics crisis” facing the nation's highest court.

Recent revelations of flags sympathetic to the “Stop the Steal” movement flown outside Alito's home have reignited simmering concerns over justices' conflicts of interest as they decide politically divisive issues. This year, justices are set to rule on access to the abortion pill and whether former President Donald Trump enjoys immunity from criminal charges alleging 2020 election interference, among other cases.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez delivered searing remarks, admonishing decades of court actions beginning with the 5-4 decision in 2000's Bush v. Gore that ultimately decided the presidential victory for George W. Bush. The lawmakers continued on to recent events that Ocasio-Cortez characterized as “corruption that is almost comical.”

“The Supreme Court as it stands today is delegitimizing itself through his conduct,” the New York Democrat continued in her opening statement. “Americans are losing fundamental rights in the process — reproductive health care, civil liberties, voting rights, the right to organize clean air and water because the court has been captured and corrupted by money and extremism.”

Raskin, of Maryland, said the “highest court in the land today has the lowest ethical standards.”

In his opening statement, Raskin characterized the court as “the judicial arm of the Republican Party,” drawing a throughline from Bush's appointments to the bench of Chief Justice John Roberts and Alito to Trump's appointments of conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

“Now this right-wing corporate court, carefully designed to destroy Roe v. Wade and marry right-wing religion to untrammeled corporate power, has been demolishing women's abortion rights and contraceptive rights, civil rights law, voting rights law, civil liberties, environmental law, workers' rights and consumer rights, enshrining government power over people and corporate power over government,” Raskin said.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez's roundtable came less than a week after progressive House Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Hank Johnson of Georgia rallied with activists outside the Supreme Court urging an ethics overhaul.

That same day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky posted to X: “As the Supreme Court term ends, the Left is once again bullying Justices who refuse to take orders from liberal Senators. The Court should take any action it deems appropriate to reprimand unethical conduct by members of its Bar. And Justices should continue to pay this harassment no mind.”

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‘Keep the pressure on'

Whitehouse told Democratic members of the Oversight and Accountability Committee that Senate Democrats are shining a “heavy spotlight on the mischief.”

The Rhode Island Democrat has championed an ethics bill titled the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, which advanced out of committee along party lines in July 2023 but has not received a floor vote.

“We need to keep the pressure on until they join the rest of the government in having a real ethics code with real fact finding and some prospects for comparing the facts that are found to the rules,” Whitehouse said.

The bill was introduced during the fallout from a 2023 ProPublica investigation revealing that Justice Clarence Thomas received gifts from and traveled with a major Republican donor.

A recent analysis by watchdog group Fix The Court illustrated that over the past 20 years the value of gifts received and likely received by Thomas dwarfs that of his colleagues.

Supreme Court orders Louisiana to use congressional map with two majority-Black districts 

Whitehouse again pressed the court in May after the New York Times published that an upside-down U.S. flag hung outside Alito's Alexandria, Virginia, home just days after former Trump's supporters breached the Capitol. The Times later revealed another flag carried by Jan. 6 insurrectionists flew outside the justice's New Jersey beach house.

Along with Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Whitehouse requested a meeting with Roberts to urge Alito to recuse himself from cases related to the Jan. 6 attack. Roberts declined, and Alito responded to the senators, declaring he would not recuse himself.

“Thank you Sen. Whitehouse for always flying the flag right side up,” Raskin said.

The court ‘will decide all of this for all of us'

Kate Shaw, University of Pennsylvania law professor, told the lawmakers that the court is “conducting itself in ways that are fundamentally inconsistent with basic separation-of-powers principles that are a core feature of our democracy.”

“This is crystal clear right now, as it is every June, as the country waits with bated breath to learn whether and how the court will upend huge swaths of American law,” she continued.

“This year questions include whether and how the court could further erode the capacity of agencies to regulate in ways that protect our health and safety and well being,” and major firearms decisions, Shaw said.

The court will also decide whether laws on the books will “be used to hold accountable individuals charged with the attack on the Capitol, including the former president,” Shaw said. “And the court is asserting that it and essentially it alone will decide all of this for all of us.”

Over two dozen opinions are expected from the Supreme Court by the end of June.

Two decisions related to two Jan. 6 cases remain pending — one involving a former police officer who breached the Capitol and is seeking to have an obstruction charge dropped. The decision could affect hundreds of Jan. 6 defendant cases, and the 2020 election interference case against Trump, who faces the same obstruction charge.

The court is also set to decide whether Trump is immune from four federal criminal counts alleging he schemed to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and knowingly spread false information that whipped his supporters into rioting on Jan. 6.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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Campaign cash for child care? Louisiana lawmakers decline to endorse it. • Louisiana Illuminator

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lailluminator.com – Julie O'Donoghue – 2024-06-12 05:00:35

by Julie O'Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
June 12, 2024

Five years ago, the Louisiana Board of Ethics told a political candidate she could use her campaign money to cover child care costs as long as the expense was related to her efforts to get elected. But state legislators declined to insert that policy into law this year.

They scuttled Senate Bill 153 to ensure candidates could use campaign dollars for election-related child care. 

The proposal passed the Louisiana Senate 31-3 but died in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Committee members said too many questions about the bill remained. 

The legislation's failure doesn't necessarily mean candidates can't use money raised for their campaigns to pay child care expenses. It just means the issue will be left up to the ethics board, which could reverse its 2018 decision at any time. 

“In some cases, it's better to have these individual decisions made, as they are, through [the ethics board],” House Republican Caucus Chairman Mark Wright of Covington said.

Former Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, wishes the Louisiana Legislature had made a definitive statement on the issue. As a candidate for Baton Rouge mayor and single father, James has sometimes wished he had child care for his 6 year-old daughter while campaigning. He has not used any election money for child care yet, but juggling his daughter during nighttime and weekend events can be difficult, he said.

“I think that the Legislature could have and should have put some clarity to it,” James said. 

What's a legitimate campaign expense in Louisiana has been interpreted liberally over the years. Candidates are allowed to use their funds for Mardi Gras parades, restaurant dining, flowers for constituents, charity golf tournaments, fuel and vehicle maintenance.

Several elected officials buy Saints and LSU football tickets with campaign money every year. They also collectively spent over half a million dollars in campaign funds to attend D.C. Mardi Gras, a four-day event that includes dozens of parties, in 2022. 

“If folks can use campaign money to buy Saints, Southern and LSU tickets, I certainly think [child care] should be permissible,” James said.

In the past, the ethics board has also waffled over whether campaign money can be used to cover child care costs.

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The board issued two opinions to male candidates in 2000 indicating they could use campaign funds to cover child care to attend fundraisers. Based on that decision, a group of men who ran for office, including U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, tapped their campaign accounts to cover child care for years. 

Then, in 2018, the board, with a different lineup of members, told legislative candidate Morgan Lamandre she could not use campaign money for child care. One member, former House Rep. Charles Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, told Lamandre her primary responsibility was to provide for her children, not to be a political candidate. 

After widespread criticism of the decision and Bruneau's remarks, the board backtracked a few months later in 2019 and voted 6-4 to allow Lamandre the child care expense. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored the Senate bill this year to clear up any confusion that might remain. She said 31 other states already have a law on the books that allows campaign cash to be used for child care.

“I'm trying to codify what the [ethics board] ruling says,” Barrow said.

During debate on the bill, a handful of legislators implied child care should not be an allowable campaign fund use. 

“Are you aware we have a general prohibition against using campaign funds for personal expenses?” Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, asked Barrow during debate on the Senate floor.

“Yes,” Barrow said. 

“So why are you bringing the bill?” Miguez replied. 

Miguez, who voted against Barrow's legislation, said allowing campaign funds to be used for child care would open “Pandora's box.” During the Senate debate, he listed utility bills, lawn care, car leases and “car notes” as costs that candidates might try to cover with campaign funds if child care became an allowable expense.

Legislators already use campaign money to cover car leases. Gov. Jeff Landry also put his campaign money toward paying “a portion of a note on a motor vehicle” for years until the ethics board told him to stop in 2022. 

“Don't you think that's very important to have [a candidate's] animal taken care of while they're out there campaigning?” Miguez asked Barrow during debate on her child care bill. 

“I know that you're not equating pet animals to children,” Barrow replied. 

“I'm not. I'm just giving you some specific examples of where this could go,” Miguez said.

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Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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