Organizing home cleaners into worker-owned cooperatives

For domestic workers like home cleaners, having a job often does not guarantee bringing in enough wages to get by. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, home cleaners earn just around $11 per hour. Their schedules are often unpredictable, and they’re not offered benefits. And if they find jobs through a gig-economy platform like Handy, they likely have to give around 20% of what they’re paid—sometimes even more—back to the platform.

Advocates and workers in the industry have been calling for a better system for years. One solution: organizing home cleaners into worker-owned cooperatives. Several small home-cleaning cooperatives have launched in the past several years. Because the workers own the businesses, they’re able to set their own schedules and rates. As a collective, they can also implement benefits like paid time off, which traditionally has been inaccessible to home cleaners.

A few years ago, the Center for Family Life, a nonprofit social services organization in Brooklyn that incubates worker cooperatives, established one such cleaning cooperative, called Brightly. And now, they’re relaunching the cooperative as a franchise network in an effort to establish more worker cooperatives and expand the reach of the organization outside the New York City area, according to Phyllis Robinson, CFL’s “Coopportunity” coordinator.

In the years that Brightly has existed, it’s proven successful, if small-scale. There are now two Brightly worker cooperatives operating in the New York City area: one in Brooklyn and one on Staten Island. Its several dozen worker-owners generally make around $21 per hour. Instead of having to fork over a large percentage of their take-home pay to a company like Handy, they decide collectively how much of their pay they want to leave in the cooperative for expenses, and how much they take home.

Robinson wants to see the cooperative model scale across the home-cleaning industry to help workers attain better pay and more control over their schedules. While worker cooperatives are still a very small segment of the overall economy, interest in the model and the number of cooperatives is growing. Key to that growth, Robinson says, is having support systems in place to help existing businesses make the switch to cooperatives, or to help cohorts of workers self organize into a coop.

Through the franchise model, CFL staff and current Brightly member-owners will make it easy for home cleaners in other cities to organize as a Brightly franchise. They’ll gain access to the Brightly branding and business infrastructure (like a website and booking platform, both of which are laborious to set up independently) and technical support from the backing organizations.

“Just like any startup businesses, worker cooperatives face challenges entering the market and staying competitive,” Robinson says. Around one in 10 mainstream businesses in the U.S. is currently part of a franchise, so to scale worker cooperatives, Brightly decided to take a cue from that fast-growing model “for all the reasons of scalability, shared resources, and shared branding,” she adds.

CFL and Brightly are attuned to the fact that the franchise model, despite its capacity for growth, does not exactly have the best reputation in the U.S., especially not when it comes to labor ethics. Franchises dominate the fast-food industry, for instance, in which workers are often underpaid and subject to erratic scheduling. “But we wanted to take this model and overlay it with what’s successful about the worker coop model,” Robinson says. That means, for instance, eliminating up-front fees owners typically have to pay to open a franchise and adapting the typical franchise agreement, a legal contract governing the relationship between franchisor and franchisee, according to worker input to incorporate the aims of the worker cooperative model. One significant change: Traditional franchise agreements include a noncompete clause that bars workers from staying in the industry after they leave. The Brightly coop does not contain such a clause. If workers want to leave an established Brightly franchise to set up their own business, they can, Robinson says—the only provision is that the business they set up must also be a cooperative.

“We want to take what works from the franchise model but make it work for the workers,” Robinson says, adding that the first new Brightly franchise is likely to open in a city close to New York, like Philadelphia. Soon, she expects the network will begin to extend much further out.

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company’s Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.