Cleaning Workers Are Fighting for Better Pay and Benefits

Cooperatives enable house cleaners to earn more money and help each other learn to become entrepreneurs who set their own rates and schedules.

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Aug 8 2018, 3:12pm

Photo by Getty Images / John Lund / Mark Romanelli / Blend Images

After moving from Mexico to Staten Island in 1996, house cleaner Araceli Dominguez had a a steady base of clients by 2017. But working 12 hour days for as little as $10 an hour was wearing on her. Even combined with her husband’s income, it wasn't enough to raise their two daughters in New York City.

Worse, as Dominguez explained through a translator, “Clients didn’t pay me what the work was worth.” The clients had all the power; setting prices, timing, even the products used, some of which contained chemicals that were hazardous to her health.

Araceli Dominguez, founding worker-owner of Brightly Port Richmond. Photo by: Helen Levi; Courtesy of Brightly Port Richmond

Then Dominguez heard about a call for members for a different kind of cleaning company, a worker-owned business developed with assistance from the Center for Family Life, a not-for-profit social services organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She attended the meeting to plan what became Brightly, the cooperative, women-run cleaning service that she’s a member of today.

How do cooperatives work?

Cooperative businesses have two key characteristics:

  • Workers own the business and participate in its financial success on the basis of their labor contribution to the cooperative. This means that they get a share of any profits.
  • Workers have representation on and vote for the board of directors, adhering to the principle of one worker, one vote.

Since 2006, the Center for Family Life has helped start fifteen co-ops—ranging from childcare to home repair services—with a total of 534 workers and $11 million in revenue, according to the organization. The idea came from women in the group's English as a Second Language and job training programs. They were frustrated with their job prospects, and, as co-director Julia Jean-Francois explained, “their goal was entrepreneurship,” and not, “just to get a minimum wage job.”

Brightly Port Richmond members. Photo by Zachary Schulman for the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City

Funding from places like the Robin Hood Foundation helped the group build their first cleaning service, Si Se Puede, based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A 12-week training program taught members the fundamentals of finance, marketing, and budgeting, including how to set up a leadership structure and research competitors' rates before setting their own prices. Workers typically contribute 10 to 15 percent of their earnings back into the co-op to cover training, operating, marketing, and legal costs.

A day in the life of a cleaning co-op worker

Co-op members set their own hours. Dominguez, for example, might do 5 to 6 hours a day of actual cleaning, but that’s just one part of her work for Brightly, where she is also the Treasurer and serves on the finance committee. A typical day, which can start as early as 6AM, and involves taking her daughters to school, preparing food, and traveling to work.

"If I take a job in Manhattan, it takes me about one hour and 15 minutes to get to work," she explained. "I first take the bus, then the ferry, and the train. Once at work, I am there for five to six hours, and then I go back home. After work, I can have a co-op meeting, or maybe I have other co-op tasks (I am the treasurer), or after school activities with my daughters."

It’s a lot of work and travel, but for Dominguez, it’s worth it: “At the end of the day,” she said, “even when I am tired, it’s really great to feel like I am growing as a person and to see how much my cooperative has evolved.”

Co-op workers like Dominguez typically make about $21 an hour, Sylvia Morse, the Center for Family Life’s project coordinator, said. By comparison, the industry average wage for housekeeping in the New York City metro area is just $17.63 an hour, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Competing in the gig economy

The cleaning co-ops get new clients through the website Up&Go, which operates much like sites such as Handy or MyClean. But whereas Handy collects 20 percent from each booking, Up&Go takes just 5 percent. Each group advertises though Facebook, email marketing campaigns, and referral discount programs. Workers enter their available hours on Up&Go, and customers select an available appointment, along with information about the size of their apartment.

For a first time, three to five hour cleaning for a one bedroom, one bath apartment, Up & Go quoted $142 to $153, including the $32 Fresh Start base deep cleaning fee. By comparison, Handy quoted $128 for a one-time cleaning in a similar apartment.

Customers are willing to pay a little more, knowing that their cleaners are getting better wages and the chance to be entrepreneurs. “The cleaning experience is incredible,” said Erika Stallings, a writer in Brooklyn who used Si Se Puede after reading an article about it. The fact that they are a worker-owned cooperative, Stallings continued, “makes me feel less iffy about the ethics of hiring someone to clean my house.”

Elizabeth Isadora Gold, a writer living in Brooklyn, said that if she and her husband decide to invest in a cleaning, they take pains to “make sure we feel like they're getting paid a fair amount of money for the work that they're doing.”

All of the cleaners on Up&Go undergo a vetting process that includes an in-person interview and a three to six month trial period, during which they attend training and complete trial jobs, before members vote on whether to make them a member.

Seeing a brighter future

A year into her time at Brightly, Dominguez says, “it's very different,” from the days of harsh chemicals, harsher hours, and low pay. She and the other co-owners have gained not only a new business, but new skills that can set them up for for a better future: “We can choose our own schedules, determine the prices, deal professionally with clients. The clients know that we're not just a worker, we're an owner.”

Dominguez is also working with colleagues to eventually purchase health insurance, and set up retirement plans for the worker-owners. After all, she says, there’s a larger goal in mind: “We are going to have a more secure future not only for ourselves, but for our families.”

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