FLORIDA — Since the beginning, Florida health leaders have described contact tracing as a key weapon in its fight against COVID-19.
“This is a way that we’re going to actually stop the cycle of transmission from person to person,” said the state’s Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees back in May.
While the state has shared few details about its contact tracing program other than it’s employed 1,500 people tasked with “tracing every positive case of COVID-19 in Florida,” we’ve had in May, Florida’s Department of Health (FDOH) quietly contracted with Maximus Inc, a Virginia-based company to help expand its efforts.
Despite repeated requests, FDOH has yet to provide us with a copy of the contract. The contract is not yet posted on the state’s contract database system. However, according to the state’s database, Florida taxpayers will be paying Maximus more than $6.2 million before the end of the fiscal year for, “contract tracing services…to prevent the spread of Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19).”
We discovered Maximus is a big government contract that provides call center services to state and federal agencies. Its motto is “helping government serve the people,” but we found it also has a history of its own workers calling the company out for wrongdoing.
“We know that Maximus has had a checkered record that really draws questions about its responsibility as a government contractor,” said Dan Bass of Communications Workers of America (CWA). The labor union is the largest communications and media labor union in the U.S. representing more than 700,000 workers.
Bass said in recent years, Maximus workers have accused the company of underpaying its employees and under-staffing jobs which has resulted in underperforming. The business has also been in trouble with the feds.
In 2007, Maximus settled with the Department of Justice and agreed to pay $30 million to cover claims that some of its employees submitted fraudulent Medicare claims for kids in D.C. foster care.
In an email to us, the company’s spokesperson Lisa Miles stated:
"The settlement related to a single project that dates back to 1999 that lacked sufficient documentation and did not meet the Maximus professional standards. The Company exited this consulting business more than a decade ago. Maximus is committed to corporate integrity and client trust in an environment that promotes and fosters leadership under the MAXIMUS Standards of Business Conduct and Ethics"
More recently, Bass said Maximus employees hired to help the Centers for Disease Control answer the public’s questions about COVID 19 have complained about their own working conditions.
“At that call center they weren’t observing their own CDC guidelines,” Bass said.
When we asked Miles about the allegations, she responded stating:
"Ensuring the safety of our workforce remains paramount, especially given the mission-critical programs we support. We have taken significant steps to keep employees safe. We are strictly enforcing social distancing and the requirement to wear a face covering, and we have also significantly increased sanitation efforts across all of our operations. In addition, we have transitioned the majority of our U.S. workforce into a work from home environment. For those employees who are working in one of our locations, we have implemented a mobile app that helps screen employees for illness. This allows us to further protect our employees as we strive to minimize illness in our operations."
It remains unclear what Maximus’ experience is in contact tracing. Miles deferred our questions about its experience in contact tracing and the scope of its contracted work in Florida to the FDOH.
As of Thursday afternoon, FDOH has not responded to our questions. However, we do know Maximus recently contracted with the state of Indiana to perform contact tracing services there. In its $29 million contract, Maximus will be hiring at least 500 people to help Indiana trace the virus among Hoosiers.
How effective contact tracing is in reducing the spread of COVID-19 remains to be seen. But Bass wants to warn Florida because knowing this latest mission is critical with taxpayers' dollars and their health on the line.
“When you see multiple red flags coming up about a company’s performance problems, how it treats its employees and other issues that we’ve seen, it raises questions whether Maximus meets the standards of a responsible contractor,” said Bass.