New support for worker cooperatives
[A new Washington law, SB 5096, provides a path for workers in Washington businesses to create cooperatives. In the Spring issue of WIP, we interviewed Nora Edge, founder and former General Manager, and Paulette LaDouceur, current General Manager of Capital Homecare Cooperative. We decided to revisit some of their insights into the benefits a cooperative structure offers for workers.]
As a worker cooperative, Capital Homecare has a structure that is uniquely able to deliver quality service — and quality jobs — in an industry that struggles to retain staff and maintain quality and still remain profitable. In the co-op model, the people doing the work make the policies, set the terms of work, provide for skills development and share in the profits.
This makes all the difference. As Nora Edge noted, “The co-op model is solving a lot of problems that the corporate model has helped to create. It’s how our culture treats and values vulnerable adults and the people who take care of them.”
Owning the business
CHC workers are invested in the business. Our workers are the owners of the co-op and they elect the members of the Board of Directors from among their number. The board is the workers. That creates a check and balance – an administrator is overseen by the people they are supervising. It forms a symbiosis where all involved benefit. Corporate capitalism trains low wage workers that they can’t own anything – and if they have a bad manager they have to take it or leave it.
An example of how a co-op makes policies that serve both workers and clients comes from the very challenging time of Covid, where there was fear for vulnerable clients and caregivers. The state issued regulations for everyone down to group homes, but it was a year before they issued guidelines for homecare. CHC and other agencies were on their own. For about four months, CHC had weekly meetings to develop and review Covid policies. With open feedback, whenever a caregiver raised a concern, there was discussion of potential solutions. Policy changes were brought to the board on a regular basis and CHC ended up with a solid set of Covid protocols.
CHC meets as a community once a month to check in about things: there are many eyes on everything. “Communication is a huge aspect of this business. The idea is that workers delivering care are thinking like owners. We empower them to participate in the development of the business and what keeps it going.”
The cooperative model yields a good profit, but unlike corporate homecare, how profits are distributed is up to the workforce. Corporate homecare agencies have a standard profit margin of 35-45%—primarily achieved by paying caregivers the lowest possible wage. In our co-op, membership has control over setting rates and wages and the overall goals of the business. CHC has had an average of 33% wage growth almost annually since it opened. During the pandemic, they distributed a major chunk of their paycheck protection loan to the workers. In a co-op, profits beyond reserves are voted on and distributed to the workers. Similarly, workers are heard when they bring something to the table. These principles are built into the bylaws.
CHC is committed to being accessible to clients at all levels of income. They are applying to accept Medicaid clients, but the process is complex and can take many months. Currently, they serve private insurance and private pay clients. In addition to shift-care, one way CHC now makes their services more available is by allowing people to pay for as few as 2 or 3 hours if that’s all they need. This makes it possible for CHC to compete with other homecare agencies in Olympia, whose rates may include up to a 12-hour minimum payment.
Quality of care
Instead of having schedules set by top-down management, CHC takes a “matchmaker,” approach, setting people up for success. Caregiving isn’t a 9-5 job and clients have specific preferences and needs. Workers at CHC set boundaries for themselves, taking on what is manageable. Regular care team meetings collect feedback from caregivers about their experiences with clients, to inform what’s needed, what’s working. For new caregivers there is shadowing, training and introductions.
The co-op model supports quality care because caregivers are supported to build skills and develop authentic relationships that enable them to provide care at a high level. Quality care for clients is the immediate consequence of this support.
The co-op culture and member engagement
This is an important aspect for Capital Homecare. No one enters the caregiving workforce for the money. It is not an easy job. People are there because they find the work meaningful. Paulette calls this “a community of care,” that extends to both clients and workers. Lots of opportunity for communication and frequent training allow for solving inevitable conflicts together. This is completely different from the corporate business model which sees those who provide the homecare as a cost to be managed, and if there are problems, to be replaced.
The co-op model recognizes that by empowering workers to participate in running the business the work will be better, the pay will be better, and there will be a future. CHC prioritizes intergenerational connections – in contrast with the overall industry, CHC has many younger caregivers. The longest serving worker has been with us for over four years. The newest worker is a few months into their service.
Paulette LaDouceur summed up what is success at CHC:
‘We recognize that empowerment is about setting up caregivers for success. One of the benefits of being a business owner is learning all of the skills involved as a business owner.
We encourage skill development, even if it leads to a caregiver moving on to the next step for them. When you see people engaged, when you see people going out and growing in their world because of skills they learned at CHC, that’s success.”
CHC is actively hiring and seeking new clients! For more information go to http://capitalhomecare.coop/chc-careers/