How to hire a housekeeper – with a clean conscience

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Maribel Torres, member of Brightly Cleaning of Staten Island (Helen Levi)

If its backers are successful, a new cleaning solution will help workplace justice sweep across New York City, a mop and a click at a time.

Up & Go, a new website unveiled last month, aims to connect worker-owned housecleaning companies with customers across the five boroughs. The project, supported by the Robin Hood Foundation, Barclays and the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, is an outgrowth of the burgeoning so-called gig economy, where people work job-to-job as a contracted service provider. But this project adds an economic justice element by leveraging its technology to work exclusively with workers’ cooperatives, a business model in which all of the employees own a share of the business, make decisions jointly and are committed to fair labor practices.

Though it’s still in its early stages – the platform publicly launched May 8 – organizers and workers hope it will attract enough customers to make it self-sustaining.

Mariana Ortega – the general manager of Cooperative Cleaning of New York, which launched in November 2015 – said the partnership makes technology and marketing resources available that are rarely accessible to small organizations. “There’s competition on the market,” she said. “We can’t compete, not individually, and Up & Go brings us all to that ability and level to do that. It’s a stepping stone.”

There are at least 40 worker cooperatives across the city in dog walking, security, food and more, according to the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives. Much of the growth of co-ops in the city have been led by immigrants and women.

There are eight cleaning co-ops across the city, the largest of which has about 100 members, according to the Center for Family Life, which has worked to help co-ops navigate contracts and traverse the city’s complicated small business terrain for more than a decade.

Backers say that co-op workers have a better quality of life, more incentives to care about their business and earn more than traditional workers in the sector.

“It means that the people actually doing the work in the field, cleaning homes, are running their business with a very deep understanding of what that work actually requires – and that’s not something you’re going to get with competitors,” said Sylvia Morse, a project coordinator at Center for Family Life.

While the endeavor is open to existing and new co-ops, so far three – Brightly Cleaning Cooperative, Cooperative Cleaning of New York, and Ecomundo Cleaning Worker Cooperative – have signed on, totaling about 32 workers. Currently, the services are only available in New York City.

By joining, prospective organizations agree to a business model and service policies developed by the participating co-ops, which include implementing a flat rate pricing structure and accepting only credit card or gift certificate payments, Morse said.

The website connects customers with companies who are registered to do the work. On the back end, prospective cleaners can see the address, home size, likely rate and other details once they decide to take the job.

Unlike other platforms, Up & Go isn’t trying to compete on cost. Instead, it is tapping into many consumers’ desire to patronize businesses that offer fair wages and provide a social benefit.

Workers on Up & Go earn an average of $22.25, compared to the average industry wage of $17.27 in the New York City area, according to statistics provided by Center for Family Life. For first-time Up & Go customers, a cleaning can cost from $100 to $135, with additional charges for other services such as laundry, window cleaning or closet organization.

Maria Esther Guillen, Member of Brightly Cleaning of Staten Island/Helen Levi

The business model directs 95 percent of the revenue to the workers’ organizations, with the rest going to Up & Go. Workers in the traditional gig economy generally keep 50 to 80 percent of their proceeds. During product testing, that statistic actually encouraged early customers to choose Up & Go.

“Just knowing a little bit more about the mission of Up & Go made a really big difference in people’s decision to follow through with the entire experience,” Morse said.

Steven Lee, a managing director at the Robin Hood Foundation, said the gig economy has become a common arrangement, but it doesn’t spread pay equally. “In that world, the folks who benefit the least are the ones that Robin Hood cares about the most,” he said.

He said his metric for success would be having “a few thousand” customers using the platform and creating a movement that put workers first in the gig economy. “Maybe there are ways that we can do something that people can learn from, maybe have some data points that can make this beyond just the borders of New York City,” Lee said.

Both the Robin Hood Foundation and Barclays declined to share how much money they pledged to Up & Go.

The initial pledge to Up & Go was about $500,000, but the Robin Hood Foundation and Barclays said they were planning to allocate more to the project.

Barclays, the project’s financial backer, has been a sponsor of the Robin Hood Foundation for some time. The developers received guidance from Cornell Tech and worker-owned creative agency CoLab Cooperative, which designed the website. The website works well on smartphone; there isn’t a separate app that users need to download.

Not only does Up & Go tackle nontraditional models of work, but the investment seemed to be an evolution of the job training and workforce development programs that the bank’s philanthropic arm often funds, said Mark Thain, the director of Barclays’ Social Innovation Facility.

The low-income demographic that traditionally benefits from the bank’s partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation “were finding it increasingly difficult to access jobs in the gig economy and they were being excluded to a certain extent,” he said.

Maribel Torres, the vice president of Brightly Cleaning Cooperative, a recently launched Staten Island co-op, said the worker-owner arrangement has given her and her colleagues more control over the business and more equity in the operation. Up & Go has given them the chance to learn from other cooperatives and the ability to reach a bigger pool of customers.

“What we’re hoping is to see that it’s not just going to be three cooperatives, but lots of cooperatives on this platform,” Torres said through a translator. “We’re looking to create more jobs and expand the impact that we have in our community because that’s why we’re doing all of this.”

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