Workers Signing Up The Uninsured For Health Coverage Worry About Getting Sick

The workers who help Americans sign up for health care coverage through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges are going to get awfully busy as more jobless claims pile up. Now, members of Congress are worried those workers will end up sick themselves as they guide the newly uninsured through the coverage process.

More than 40 Democrats signed a letter Thursday to the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expressing concern that the agency’s call center workers were being put in “grave danger” during the coronavirus pandemic. The lawmakers said CMS’ private contractor, the call center operator Maximus, still hadn’t developed a plan for employees to telework during the public health crisis.

The cruel irony of forcing call center workers to come to work in unsafe conditions, while they help people nationwide on Medicare, Medicaid and the ACA during a pandemic, is astounding,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told HuffPost in a statement.

Pocan and his colleagues noted in their letter that Maximus had to temporarily close some call centers since the coronavirus outbreak began. They said that thousands of workers “are now at risk of contracting the virus and continuing to spread it in their communities” due to having to work onsite rather than at home.

Call centers have emerged as a major concern during the pandemic because they can be crowded workplaces with less-than-generous sick leave policies. Call center workers have told HuffPost and In These Times they were reluctant to continue clocking in and working in such close proximity to their colleagues, especially when some people already exhibited cold and flu symptoms.

According to the Democrats’ letter, CMS had ordered state and local governments to allow 11 of its call centers to continue operating because they were not set up for telework at any of those locations. The lawmakers asked CMS Administrator Seema Verma to alter that guidance to allow for telework for “every worker possible,” and to guarantee sick leave without penalty for anyone who needs it.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in a statement to HuffPost that Verma “has had her foot on the throat of these frontline call center workers” from “the second she was sworn in” in 2017. Schakowsky called it “politically motivated cruelty.”

Officials with CMS and Maximus did not immediately respond to questions emailed Thursday. In a note to employees posted on its website April 2, Maximus said it was instituting a “no exception stance” on social distancing, requiring workers onsite to stay at least six feet apart from one another. The note said anyone who violated the policy would face disciplinary action.

The call center workers will be filling a critical role in the coming weeks as more Americans lose their employer-sponsored health care coverage, forcing them to look for insurance through the exchanges. The Labor Department said 6.6 million new jobless claims were filed last week, on top of 6.9 million the previous week. Roughly one in 10 U.S. workers have lost their jobs in less than a month. 

The Communications Workers of America union, which represents thousands of call center employees, has been trying to organize workers at Maximus facilities under government contracts, saying the wages are too low and the benefits too skimpy. “Here we’re trying to help low-income people get coverage, and we can hardly afford our own coverage,” one Maximus employee told New York Magazine in February.

Chris Shelton, the union’s president, has accused Maximus of refusing to engage in a dialogue with employees on safety during the pandemic. He has demanded the company meet with a workers’ organizing committee.

Monica Harris, who works at a Maximus call center in Chester, Virginia, said in a statement through the union that the company waited too long in issuing its guidelines in early April, when the pandemic was already well underway. 

“We shouldn’t have to put our families, ourselves, and our communities at risk by coming to work when other critical government services like the Social Security Administration have moved to telework,” Harris said.

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