By Hell Gate NYC – May 17, 2022

“You decide what kind of job you have.”

Clara Calvo, a worker-owner and home care worker, with her dog, Poochie, in her Washington Heights apartment. (Peter Senzamici/Hell Gate)

Worker cooperatives are a business structure that allows for democratic decision-making among the workers, who then also own the company. Co-ops exist in virtually every field of work. In New York City, there are co-ops for cleaning services and cab driving, dog walking, and the food industry. The workers who make up these co-ops—frequently in industries where workers have little power—actually own the business and make crucial decisions, collectively with their coworkers. But to consumers, it may not look that different from any other business. 

As the city’s newest worker-owned news outlet, Hell Gate is launching a series about worker cooperatives around the five boroughs and the people who work at them. Because we’re still figuring out this whole ownership thing, we want to learn from the people who have made it work. This is the first installment of Meet a Worker Co-op.

Name: Cooperative Home Care Associates

Number of Worker-Owners: About 800 worker-owners, and 800 worker-members

Origin Story

In 1985, 12 home health aides founded CHCA, the Bronx-based co-op that now employs about 1,600 home care workers. In 1992, it expanded to include a nonprofit workforce development program to provide free training. 

How It Works

Workers join the home care agency and are members for three months before having the option to purchase a share of the cooperative and become a worker-owner. A share costs $1,000, paid in small installments of $3.65 over a five-year period after a $50 upfront payment, with the goal of making it financially feasible to become an owner. 

A board of directors elected by the larger body of worker-owners votes on some decisions, and critical decisions over profit-sharing dividends are voted on by the larger group of workers-owners. The last dividend for worker-owners was back in 2017, with $727,000 split among all worker-owners. Each worker-owner received an average of $839 in extra cash. 

The cooperative is also unionized with 1199-SEIU. All home health care workers are represented by the union and receive health benefits, paid holidays, and continued education opportunities through the union. 

Why a Co-op 

Clara Calvo, a home care worker and member of the board of directors, likes the co-op because of the opportunities for professional development, the ability to have more power in determining her work conditions, and the respect coworkers have for one another. 

“You decide what kind of job you have, how many hours you work, and the coworkers—you have more close [relationships] than the other traditional companies,” Calvo said. She’s been a worker-owner for two decades.

Calvo, 58, joined the co-op on a recommendation from a friend after needing to find a job that offered benefits, following a period of instability due to a domestic violence incident. Previously, she worked in a beauty parlor. 

“They gave me the opportunity to grow up—to stay in the classroom, to learn a little English,” said Calvo, a Washington Heights resident originally from the Dominican Republic. She works as an assistant instructor for the training program to mentor others, as well as a home health aide in patients’ homes.

Denise Hernandez, a worker-owner and vice president of HR, sits at her desk, overflowing with gifts and ephemera from clients and coworkers she’s kept during her 18 years at CHCA. (Peter Senzamici/Hell Gate)

The Challenges

Getting all of the worker-owners involved in decision-making is difficult, due to the size of CHCA and informing people about the autonomy ownership can bring. Getting involved, like any kind of organizing, can be a significant investment of time.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, admin workers have relied on a text message system to keep worker-owners updated on upcoming elections. They also distribute one-pager memos explaining dense financial documents. Several Fridays a year, the CHCA headquarters hosts an information session for workers to ask questions and get more involved in decision-making.  

Older, longer-tenured employees are typically more engaged in the process, according to Denise Hernandez, a worker-owner and vice president of human resources. “How do we get the younger folks, the folks that are just entering, jazzed about this?” she said. “We’re still really trying to figure that out.” 

What’s Next

Operating as a cooperative model still doesn’t solve how poorly home health aides are paid. Calvo makes $15 an hour—minimum wage in the city. 

“Nobody survives with $15 an hour,” Calvo said. Her adult kids help with rent. 

Home care workers’ pay is tied to Medicaid reimbursements to the providers. New York’s recent budget package included a provision to increase the minimum wage for home care workers by $2 this fall, adding another dollar increase next year. But that fell short of the $22.50 hourly wage that advocates wanted. Even that proposed increase fell slightly short of what many workers likely need—one estimate of the living wage for a single adult in the metro area is $22.71 an hour.

“We still feel that that amount of money is not going to help us recruit and retain workers here,” said Hernandez. “People are still going to live below the poverty lines. Inflation is kicking our butt.”

Back in March, Hernandez said, a group of home care workers boarded a company van to Albany each week to lobby lawmakers for better pay as a member of the advocacy coalition, the New York Caring Majority. Home care workers spent the day chasing down lawmakers to speak directly to them about their pay. 

The co-op isn’t just a business model—it’s an organizing vehicle for long-term change, too. The power of the co-op, Hernandez says, is partly an “opportunity for our workers to get involved and share their voice and share that they’re important here, why they deserve more money.”