New Co-ops: Clean Your House Fairly and Greenly

By Maggie Freleng

Hiring people to clean your house can be a tricky proposition. You may want to offload the chores, but worry about how cleaners are treated, especially if you're hiring a service.  

There's a new way to make sure you're offering a fair deal—hiring a worker cooperative. Low-income and immigrant-owned worker cooperatives are on the rise, particularly in the cleaning industry.

Across the country, these workers are joining together to create sustainable work environments for themselves. The cooperatives provide fair pay, better job stability, and decent working conditions.

Recently, immigrant workers in New York created Pa'lante Forward Green Cleaning LLC, a worker cooperative with help from members of Make the Road New York, an organization dedicated to improving lives of Latino and working class communities.  

The owners of Pa’lante created the service as a solution to the common issues and exploitation they faced in the cleaning industry.

According to Saduf Syal, workforce and worker co-op project director at Make the Road NY, most low-wage workers are Latino and work in a variety of industries, from health aide to construction to house cleaning.

Syal said that Latino workers face the highest risk on the job, and the worst part is, their typical jobs are predominantly non-union.

And wage theft is a major problem workers face. Employers either don’t pay minimum wage, or pay for overtime, or give the workers the salaries originally promised.

However, Sue Lob, an employer and a volunteer leader with Hand in Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers seeking to create dignified and respectful working conditions, said sometimes "employers want to do the right thing by the domestic workers they employ, but often don't know what that is."

As an employer of child care providers and house cleaners herself, Lob explains a fair salaray is $20/hour for a minimum of 3 hours, and that employers should pay the house cleaner for a day that the employer must cancel their work, as well as paid sick days.

New York City’s new sick day law states:

Domestic workers who have worked for the same employer for at least one year, and who work more than 80 hours a calendar year, earn two days of paid sick leave under City law. This sick leave is in addition to the three days of paid rest to which domestic workers are entitled under Section 161(1) of the New York State Labor Law.

She also believes it is the employer's responsibility to provide cleaning supplies and protective gear, as well as an option to use non-toxic products.

However, since many people are unaware or are unwilling to comply to those standards, she said, "We support the idea of worker co-ops as a way for workers to have more control over setting their work conditions, negotiating a fair contract and navigating difficult situations."

In this vein, Pa’lante was started.

"The idea was to bring members with years and years of experience together so they can really pool their resources and their skills, and collectively publicize and use the co-op as a marketing tool," Syal said.

Part of their marketing tool is the fact that Pa’lante is a green cleaning service.

"They were really interested in putting a lot of force on that," Syal said. "They know the effects of cleaning everyday with chemicals. So that came out of concern for their own occupational health and safety as well as their clients."

Creating their own business has allowed them the opportunity to right the wrongs they saw happening before, and create an environment that is fair and sustainable for them.

However, Pa’lante is not the first worker-owned cleaning service, and Syal said they were lucky to learn from other organizations during a time when the city government has had a growing interest.

Si Se Puede, an employee-owned house cleaning business in Brooklyn, NY, started in 2006. According to a 2011 article about the organization, the immigrant worker-owners of Si­ Se Puede tripled their wages to as much as $25-an-hour in four years. In 2011, the company had 37 worker-owners and grossed $1.6 million.

Apple Eco-Cleaning is another organization, based out of New York, founded and run by low-income female workers.

Syal said that since they have finally achieved the funding goal for the service, lately they have been focusing on finalizing legal pieces to the co-op, and everything is off to a really great start.

The workers have started to go out for jobs and are getting calls from clients every day.

Pa’lante is even being awarded the Small Business Achievements Award from the Queens Tribune and Press of Southeast Queens on May 20.


Image: © ipag