“When Someone Hires Me, They Get the Boss Herself”
Can a sophisticated platform cooperative help minimize exploitative working conditions in the gig economy, even during a pandemic?
At first glance, Up & Go resembles any other housekeeping app: When a client requests a cleaning service in New York City, it only takes a few clicks, and a trained housekeeper like Maria Carmen Tapia will show up at the door with her scrubber, broom, and eco-sprays. For a $135 fee she will do a five-hour deep cleaning of a one-bedroom apartment, scrub the bathroom, polish the floors.
But under the surface, Up & Go operates differently than most gig economy platforms, and its structure serves the workers well now in the pandemic. 42-year-old Ms. Tapia is no underpaid worker eking out a meager living in an expensive city. She is the owner of her own enterprise. “When someone hires me, they get the boss herself!” she says.
Up & Go is a new platform model for cooperatives. In 2017, the non-profit Center for Family Life, a neighborhood-based family and social services organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, invited Ms. Tapia to join. “At first, I didn’t even know exactly what an app and a coop are,” Ms. Tapia admits. Now she is one of 51 housekeepers, all Latin American immigrants, who own the platform together. “We want to bring fair work to the workers by bringing the coops into the 21st century,” Sylvia Morse, the project’s coordinator, emphasizes.
The owner-workers share offices, customer service representatives, and the app. They talk biweekly to make decisions like: Should we include more housekeepers? Expand the cooperative? During New York City’s stay-at-home order, they had to suspend residential cleanings, which is the core of their business model, but Ms. Tapia and her colleagues made up for some of the losses by fulfilling Up & Go’s contracts for commercial cleanings, and have reopened for domestic cleanings on July 1st.
Since March of this year, Maria Carmen Tapia has learned a host of new skills. She and her colleagues at the housekeeping app Up & Go in Brooklyn went through work safety training by Occupational Safety and Health Administration-authorized trainers, learned to put on protective gear correctly and establish safety protocols to keep themselves and their clients safe during the pandemic.
The center has worked in Sunset Park since 1978. Its offers include counseling, child and senior care, and for the last 12 years, it has tried to raise workers’ wages by helping them form cooperatives. Instead of the 11 to 12 dollars Ms. Tapia used to earn when she found clients through flyers and word of mouth, she usually makes 25 dollars per hour with Up & Go. “If a house requires more work, we raise the fee,” Ms. Tapia says. The mother of two has worked as a housekeeper and babysitter since she emigrated from Ecuador with her mother 21 years ago. “I was barely making minimum wage. My life has changed drastically. Even my husband respects me more because we contribute the same to the household budget.”
Cooperatives have been booming in New York. Landscapers, nurses, and painters increasingly organize themselves in coops. But Up & Go is unique in combining the traditional coop structure with the online platform and app technology of the gig economy. It tries to pick the best of two worlds: For clients, the ease of an app to book help quickly. For workers, the safety and career perspectives of regular jobs plus the pride of being an entrepreneur.
The center focuses on the most vulnerable workers whose skills in English are poor, Ms. Morse said. “They mostly get overlooked with traditional business funding.”
The workers agreed on safety protocols as soon as the threat of Covid-19 became clear. “In this stressful time,” Ms. Morse said, “it makes a big difference that workers have the space to share, establish best practices.” To make up for the loss of income, the Center did extra fundraising , extended the hours of its food pantry, and connected those who struggle to pay their bills with emergency funds. “Early on, the big challenge was to make sure the coop members had the right information, took precautions to protect themselves and their customers,” Ms. Morse says. “This is where we really saw the power of the coop. We had these systems in place. Everything was grounded in the worker’s experience, rather than ‘we need to make as much money as possible; let’s send people out even if they don’t have adequate protective gear.’” So far none of them has contracted COVID-19.
The gig economy, with its fast-growing platforms like Uber, Handy, or TaskRabbit, initially seemed to offer quick opportunities for freelancers and unskilled workers when it took off after the 2008 recession. According to Gallup, 36 percent of US workers have tried a gig arrangement in some capacity. But economists soon warned against the pitfalls of on-demand services. Gig economy workers tend to be poorer and are more likely to be minorities than the population at large, the Pew Research Center found. Gigs offer the advantage of flexibility. But on-demand laborers frequently complain about lack of support when they encounter exploitation and harassment. As independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic protections such as overtime pay or minimum wages. When a powerful platform like Uber suddenly drops its prices or changes its conditions, many drivers have no choice but to drive for less money.
Lisa Bor is a German student at the Technical University, Berlin, writing her doctoral dissertation about the digital outsourcing of care work. When she did not immediately find a job after finishing her studies of science history in 2016, she signed up as a housekeeper with Helpling, a leading international housekeeping platform in Europe and Asia. Ms. Bor initially appreciated the immediate access to the large database of clients. But she soon realized that she never hit the hourly wage of 14 dollars she had hoped for. “Helpling keeps 25 to 32 percent of the fee,” she says.
In theory, she could set her own fees on the platform. “But in reality, clients book the housekeeper who takes eight dollars an hour,” she says. “These platforms transfer the risk to the worker, who lives paycheck to paycheck. When you get sick or injured, the entire model collapses.”
Her biggest complaint is that she felt unsupported. “From a worker’s perspective, this was the exact opposite of the coop idea,” Bor laments. “I was always working alone, had no access to the other workers, we could not warn another before encountering a particularly difficult client. When there was a conflict, I was left alone and had to justify why I couldn’t solve the issue myself.” Ms. Bor believes that coops could provide a solution for some of these dilemmas. “The basic idea of the sharing economy is a good one, but only if workers own the platform and thus have the power to stand up for their interests.”
By contrast, the Up & Go worker-owners distribute the existing jobs fairly among themselves, and every worker has agreed to stay home should they feel any symptoms of illness. “A big difference is that we know our rights better,” Tapia says. “We are not only workers but entrepreneurs. That changed who I am and how I see myself. I am constantly learning new things –- how to run a business, how to handle a democratic decision-making process, what good management is…” She also points out that the coop members decide collectively how to handle sick days or approve new members, and that “If I am sick, another worker will keep my spot open.”
The 51 Up & Go worker-owners, only two of whom are men, speak very little English. Ms. Tapia knows enough English to arrange basic housekeeping but defers more complex conversations and conflict resolution to professional customer service agents. “It is exactly this clientele we want to serve with Up & Go,” Ms. Morse emphasizes. “Historically, this type of work has been done by immigrants and predominantly by women. Racism and sexism have devalued this work. Especially in cities like New York where the living costs are so high, the income equality thus continues to grow.”
The biggest hurdle in copying the Up & Go model are the development costs. Barclays and Robin Hood, a New York City anti-poverty organization, funded the startup with half a million dollars, and invested again this year. Tech experts from CoLab Cooperative improved the app. This financial and logistical support allows the Up & Go owners to keep 95 percent of their income and deduct five percent to support the infrastructure.
This model will only work long-term if enough consumers are willing to pay a higher fee to be certain that their housekeepers are legally documented and fairly paid. “I’ve seen $30 online specials for an initial cleaning,” Ms. Morse says. “Up & Go just can’t do that.”
Instead, she said, Up & Go advertises quality and trust: “It’s a matter of trust to let someone into your home. With Up & Go, you know that the person has not just downloaded an app but is a co-owner who went through a training process. The sense of accountability and safety is huge.”
Before the pandemic, Ms. Morse said that Up & Go was likely to turn a profit this year and expand. Now she hopes that commercial cleanings will keep the startup afloat and that other cities and industries will copy the model. She found it especially encouraging that nearly 50 percent of its residential clients continue to pay for the services to support the workers even if they could not receive their services during the lockdown.
“Who owns the technology? Who decides how it is designed? How does it influence the quality of life for workers in the gig economy?” Ms. Morse asks. “When we look at the change in the working world, these questions are important.”
Michaela Haas, Ph.D., is the author, most recently, of “Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience,” about posttraumatic growth.
A shorter version of the story originally appeared in the New York Times.