February 28, 2024

Opinion: I help seniors get health care. Shouldn’t I be able to afford my own?

By Christina Jemenez

As a federal customer service representative, I help seniors access the health care they need through Medicare. I often handle hundreds of calls per day to sign people up, answer their questions, help them navigate billing, and more.

The hard truth is that despite working for the largest federal call center contractor, Maximus, I don’t have access to affordable health coverage for myself or children, and my pay is so low I’m struggling to stay afloat. That’s why I went on strike this November with hundreds of my co-workers who are experiencing similar struggles.

It’s not easy navigating our health care system, and I take pride in making sure the process is as painless as possible for seniors who feel frustrated by it. Sadly, I know that feeling all too well.

Unlike workers directly employed by the government, who are paid living wages and receive good benefits, I make $16.20 per hour — the minimum allowed for federal contract workers. My children and I live in a home that’s owned by my children’s grandparents. If it wasn’t for their help, we’d likely be homeless.

While Maximus rakes in billions in federal dollars, I’ve had to go without meals to ensure my children have food on the table. More than a year ago, my son had an allergic reaction and had to go to the emergency room. I still have medical debt from that visit because my health insurance from Maximus doesn’t cover a lot of costs, and I can’t afford the bill.

Nobody should have to endure this kind of hardship, especially while working for a company with a $6.6 billion federal contract that’s spent $20 million on CEO pay and hundreds of millions of dollars on stock buybacks.

As our one-day strike showed, I’m not the only one struggling at Maximus. A new report shows that nine in ten surveyed workers at Maximus report having medical debt or having to avoid or postpone medical treatment due to cost. And 91 percent report earning significantly less than the living wage needed to sustain a household with children.

Our employer is well aware of these issues. In the call center where I work, Maximus announced a program that asks us to donate used clothing for co-workers who may not be able to afford new clothes. It would be better to simply pay us a living wage.

In our call centers in Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, Texas, and Louisiana, many of my coworkers are Black and Latina women like myself. We make up close to a majority of the lowest-paid workers at the company. This is not a coincidence.

We’ve been sounding the alarm for years about this, and we’ve been disappointed by the failure of the Biden administration, which pays Maximus to run its Affordable Care Act and Medicare call centers, to make things better.

The administration has the power to use public money to ensure contractors like Maximus pay living wages and engage in fair employment practices. Yet they awarded Maximus another massive contract just last year — and haven’t taken any steps to address our demands for living wages and affordable health care.

We need the administration to follow through on its commitment to use federal dollars to create good jobs and end the two-tier system in which we’re expected to do similar work to federal employees but aren’t paid enough to support our families.

The Biden administration says they believe healthcare is a right not a privilege, that federal money should be used to create good jobs, and that Black women are the backbone of their coalition. I stand with hundreds of my co-workers to say: prove it.

Christina Jimenez is customer service representative at the Maximus Federal call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.