Senators urge federal contractor accused of flouting CDC rules to meet with worried workers

Six U.S. senators on Friday urged a federal contractor accused of failing to follow social distancing guidelines at a Mississippi call center to meet with workers worried about their safety.

Their letter came after a whistleblower claimed in an NBC News report that Maximus, which hired her to provide callers with coronavirus information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was not following CDC guidelines and exposed dozens of workers to the virus.

“We are concerned by recent reports that Maximus held a training for 70 employees in a facility that was not large enough to allow for social distancing,” the letter states. “Allegedly, attendees were provided a single bottle of sanitizer to share, and were asked to sanitize their workstations themselves.

“Outside the training, Maximus call center employees have reportedly been asked to work in close proximity to one another, at times even having to share desks and equipment.”

Brianna Flores.Courtesy Brianna Flores.

In their letter to Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell, the lawmakers said the company “has yet to create a telework infrastructure to allow all workers to perform their jobs safely at home.”

“Adding to our concern is Maximus’s paid sick leave policy, which leaves approval to management’s discretion, and does not provide paid leave to many workers when a worksite is closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak,” they said.

Also, the senators wrote, Maximus has put into place a payment program that “may create a financial incentive for workers to come to work while sick.”

It was signed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland.

They set a May 20 deadline for Caswell to respond with steps Maximus is taking to ensure workers are safe during the pandemic.

In response to a request for comment from NBC News, Maximus issued a statement that did not address whether the company would meet with workers. It said the company has, since March 16, offered paid leave to workers that exceeds the requirements of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“We have mandated social distancing, introduced more flexible schedules, increased sanitization and cleaning efforts, provided staff with face coverings and we continue to transition more and more employees to work from home,” the statement says. “Mental wellness resources have been enhanced to support staff mindfulness and meditation along with virtual fitness training for exercise.”

The drive to improve safety at Maximus call centers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and elsewhere is being led by workers who are trying to unionize.

“It’s time for Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell to stop dodging his workers and meet directly with their organizing committee,” Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America, said in a statement.

Whistleblower Brianna Flores told NBC News last month that when she arrived for orientation on March 23 at the Maximus center in Hattiesburg she could see the company was not social distancing.

“We were packed like sardines in the space,” Flores said.

Within days of the orientation, Flores said she was forced to go into quarantine for two weeks because a trainee in her group tested positive for the coronavirus.