Christopher Sloce reports for The Virginia Worker from the strike at Maximus Call Center in Chester, Virginia

The best way I can describe working in a call center is through two anecdotes:

The first from when I was a recruiter for the biggest call center in Richmond. For two years, I interviewed upwards of five people a day, assessing whether they’d be a good fit for doing a variety of financial services. 

At some point, my boss told me in a one-on-one: “Do you know how long we need people to stay at this company?” I said, “I dunno, a year?” “Six months.” He said. “By the time someone has been here six months, they’ve either found a new job, advanced in the company, gotten fired, or quit showing up.”

He continued to explain: “Due to our contract with the company we serve, we make our money back on the training and any licenses after six months. After six months of fielding calls about insurance, banking, or mortgages, the customer service representative will have taken the number of phone calls we’re to have done by our contract.”

If you’ve ever worked at a call center, this is why they’re so stressful: they’ve promised the company they’re contracting out to that they can deliver a certain amount of product. Customer service is a product. That product has to meet a certain number of parameters of satisfaction including time. 

Because the product goes live, the most important thing according to a call center’s construction is that the product (you, solving the customer’s problem) is delivered in a timely manner. In order to measure this, a stat called adherence or compliance has been invented. Adherence is a measurement of how much time you, as a worker, spend taking phone calls.

Second anecdote: a man who looked like a boiled egg with glasses demonstrated the importance of time for my training class. Our 25 reps gathered around in a circle. He put four red balls in our hands and told us to begin passing them to our right. At his command, a few of us would drop out of the circle, leaving those left inside the circle to pass around the balls, overwhelmed by how much quicker the balls came to us.

This creates for a high pressure work environment, rife with tensions, but also reveals a stark fact: the call center world is full of people who do take calls, but are totally at the mercy of people who don’t. Which begs the question: why don’t more call centers strike?

In Richmond, Maximus is the first call center I’ve seen strike in the area.  There are around six or seven companies I can name, all with names that sound like the company in a Verhoven movie, including The Results Company. On Monday, I drove out to Chester to talk with a few of the striking Maximus workers, who are part of an organizing committee for the Communication Workers of America for Local 221. 

Maximus is a third-person contracting company focusing primarily on Medicare, Covid-19, and health insurance exchanges through the Affordable Care Act. When federal and state governments have a problem that needs people on phones, Maximus is there and available, often to illustrious effect. In 2021, Maximus was awarded a $951 million contract to support a hotline for the Center for Disease Control to schedule vaccinations

After my GPS deposited me at the original Maximus building, now another abandoned human silo out in the exurbs, I was able to finally get to the strike and park at Maximus. It wasn’t long until a local DSA member I was familiar told me I couldn’t park in the main parking lot. The strikers were relegated to an overflow lot by police because Maximus is private property and a good number of people at the strike weren’t employees but local left groups like the aforementioned DSA and CPUSA there for community support.

Speaking with an official CWA organizer, the strike was referred to as a “limited” one day strike, the third action taken at this Maximus site, where a group of employees have been organizing for better conditions for around three years. Speaking with Jessyka, one of the organizers, it became apparent rather quickly what one of the biggest complaints workers have with Maximus: the management of time. 

All workers have to adhere to their schedule with 90% accuracy on arriving and leaving, breaks and lunches. “You can’t control an application page,” she said, referring to the inconsistency of their computer performance. “Or getting a phone call right before break.”

In an eight hour shift, you have 480 minutes planned out for you, including your lunches and breaks. 90% percent of this is 432 minutes, leaving you 48 minutes you can be “out” of compliance. Close to an hour seems doable, until you realize the problems. If you were to come in one day ten minutes late, have a phone call go five minutes over on your break –meaning you’re five minutes late coming back– you would have already been at 96% compliance at best

If you wind up getting any more phone calls over and don’t hit your break exactly, it would be very easy for your daily stats to fall under 90%. Compliance as a stat is taken over a month average. But when people are dealing with complicated health care questions, it’s completely possible for an employee to do an excellent job, but miss one stat. At which point the draconian system of verbal and final warnings come into place.

If this sounds nerve wracking, it is. Surveillance is a constant at these jobs: both digital and personal surveillance is the norm. “Any call under two minutes is flagged.” Jessyka said. In the world of call centers, too fast and too slow can be detrimental to your performance. And if you think you can escape in the safest space in any office place, you’ll find Maximus has figured out a way to manage that as well. 

When I first spoke with Will, another organizer with CWA, he relayed a fact to me that I found extreme even in the context of any call center I’ve ever worked at. “Our bathroom breaks are timed at six minutes.” He said.

Anything over that can result in a dock of pay. Without revealing too much about myself, I started chewing over all the ways that could go wrong, all of which were agreed on by the staff. Speaking with the workers, the theme of the strike could be best summed up by Jessyka: “I want to help,” she said. “But let me have my time.” 

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