Maximus employees protest for better working conditions amid coronavirus pandemic

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Protesters outside of the call center operator Maximus stand with signs calling for better conditions for workers during the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, May 1, 2020.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. Friday

Employees of Maximus, one of Lawrence’s largest private businesses, are demanding the company to do more to protect them from contracting the coronavirus at work.

Some workers from the call center and representatives for the Communication Workers of America union on Friday protested outside the business’ location in the East Hills Business Park, calling for changes to working conditions amid the pandemic.

Craig Williams, a representative for CWA, told the Journal-World one of the group’s main concerns was the business not allowing enough employees to work from home like many other businesses. He said employees also feared that the company’s facilities were so full of people that it was impossible to follow social-distancing guidelines, among other issues.

Maximus’ Lawrence location provides call center services for the federal health insurance marketplace exchange. Williams said the facility currently employs about 600 people but could get up to 1,200 people during the Affordable Care Act’s open enrollment period.

Several employees wearing masks and gloves could be seen walking around the campus about midday Friday. Additionally, many cars were parked in the business center’s parking lot.

Kristen Runk, one of the Maximus employees protesting on Friday, said she and her coworkers were considered essential workers and were coming into the office during the pandemic. Although Runk acknowledged that in recent weeks some changes have occurred in response to COVID-19, she said Maximus had been slow to react.

“They were not giving us adequate cleaning supplies to clean off our equipment on a daily basis until recently,” she said. “We are very, very slowly being given the option to work from home.”

Runk said the group was also protesting for better pay and better attendance and sick leave policies.

Lisa Miles, Maximus’ senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, said in an email to the Journal-World that the company put a paid leave policy in place on March 16 and has shifted many employees to work from home, amounting to about 35% of the company’s Lawrence workforce. She said the number of employees who worked from home would increase as the company worked to obtain more equipment like laptops and headsets, which she said were necessary for the job.

She said the company has also mandated social distancing, provided face coverings and enhanced sanitation methods to be in line with the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company will also implement health screenings to ensure anyone who is ill does not come to work, she said.

“We are continuously adding enhanced safety measures,” Miles said.

The Friday protest comes about a little over a month after the Lawrence call center experienced a COVID-19 scare.

In March, the company partially shut down one of its large buildings in the business park because of a positive test result for COVID-19, the Journal-World previously reported. But the company later said it would reopen the building because an employee lied about testing positive. Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health later confirmed that it had no record of an employee of Maximus having tested positive for the virus.

Despite the false report, employees still expressed concern the business was not doing enough to protect workers from the virus. They had demanded that an outside agency, like the health department, come to the facility and decide whether Maximus was following proper social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health declined to do so. Dan Partridge, director of the department, said at the time he did not believe that was the department’s role.

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