Local Caregivers Bind Together to Create Heartsong Health Cooperative

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Main News Photo

As the population continues to age, the need for caregivers in Skagit County is increasing.  The question of what type of care to provide an aging parent and where to find that care is a struggle that many local families will face.  Most people want to stay home as long as possible.  Some families are able to accommodate the changing needs of a family member over time.  Eventually, for most, some assistance is required.  Local caregivers are filling the gap by providing in-home care to elderly who are bedridden, and those who simply need someone to spend time with.  The challenge for these caregivers is that many of them cannot afford to do the job they love so much.  With agencies taking the lion share of payments caregivers may only make $11.50 an hour, though families pay $30 an hour, on average.  This creates an inequitable situation, leading to high turnover, and a lack of continuity for patients.

Local cooperatives may be the answer

The worker-owned cooperative business model is different from conventional business models in that it is owned by the people who work there.  Each caregiver who joins a cooperative is given a vote and a voice in determining the direction of the organization, including what services are offered and what rates to charge.  Though cooperatives have administrative overhead, and the majority of what a client pays goes directly to the caregiver, making it a more equitable arrangement.

For caregivers like Cathy Butterfield, a co-founder of Heartsong Health Cooperative (HHC) based in Olympia, the cooperative model allows caregivers to take control over their life and career.  When working for home healthcare agencies, she was not making a high enough hourly wage.  When working on her own, she gets bogged down in paperwork and financial matters, which is not her strength.  Her passion is caring for people and she wants to focus all her energies towards doing so.  Since the cooperative will have an administrator, she can.

Once operational, HHC will provide personal and home care services to elderly and people with disabilities in the home setting.   In addition to personal hygiene assistance, including showering, hair care, dental care, dressing, etc., HHC will provide transportation, accompany clients to medical appointments, grocery shopping, house cleaning, laundry, meal preparation and companionship - everything the client needs to be safe and happy at home.  The caregivers providing this care will be able to focus on the daily needs of their clients, without worrying about completing administrative tasks.

Cooperatives allow caregivers to work as a team

Another benefit to the cooperative model is that it allows for caregivers to support one another.  For example, if a caregiver needs a day off, another member can step in.  Likewise, if a patient begins needing additional care, members can work as a team to provide round-the-clock support, without the patient needing to be transferred to an assisted living or nursing facility.

Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC) and the Washington Small Business Center (SBDC) are supporting HHC

After observing the development and success of other Washington homecare co-ops, the Mount Vernon SBDC office has been collaborating with Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC) to knit together an integrated business assistance network in Skagit and Island County.  Together the organizations can provide startup and ongoing business advising specific to the concerns of cooperatives.  This collaboration has been supported by the newly passed Mainstreet Worker Ownership Act which updates the Small Business Associations lending practices to better serve worker owned businesses.

In the case of Heartsong Homecare Cooperative, caregivers seek to have more say in the running of the business than they did in a traditional agency.  They’ve designed a business to ensure their own longevity by providing a living wage. By participating in their own governance structure and policies, they are able to improve working conditions such that the cooperative will be able to provide clients with long-term, quality care. Support from Deborah Craig, a Cooperative Development Specialist at NWCDC, and Cindy Brooks of the Mount Vernon SBDC, has included strategy, governance documents, market research, business plan development, financial pro forma, investor presentation preparation, policy development, licensing process, hiring staff and ongoing support.

HHC has one last hurdle to overcome before launching

HHC still needs licensing to provide services as a home care agency, something NWCDC will help to facilitate.  “In order to apply for the license, we want to be fully funded. We currently have about 1/3 of our needed funds in low interest loans and are in the process of identifying other possible sources” commented Deborah Craig.

The need is growing

Cathy reports that she receives at least three requests per week from families looking for caregivers and believes that, “… local cooperatives are a big answer to a growing problem in our community.”

The need for more caregivers is increasing year by year, making it important for residents of Skagit County to consider the types of solutions they want to have available in their communities. Supporting cooperative businesses is one option.  All local caregivers are invited to apply.  Cooperatives give both caregivers and the community agency in expanding the spectrum of services that will be available to local seniors.  With all decisions made by members at the local level, cooperatives give their members and the community a voice.

As Deborah Craig said, “The home care industry will continue to grow, and new agencies will be moving in.  The question is, who will own those agencies? With a home care co-op, workers are treated well, have a say in their business and are compensated at a fair wage.  Creating better jobs for caregivers will help reduce turn over and create consistency of care.  Clients and caregivers benefit from this model and so does the community, since this will keep wages, taxes, and profits in Skagit County.”

More information

HHC is open to inquiries from caregivers looking to become members and from prospective clients. Those looking for more information may contact Cathy Butterfield at cbcolors@gmail.com.

Local lenders interested in learning more about the cooperative should contact Deborah Craig at deborah@nwcdc.coop.

Local businesses seeking to start a co-operative or transition to worker ownership can contact Deborah Craig or Cindy Brooks, Certified Small Business Advisor at cindy.brooks@wsbdc.org.

Once HHC is fully operational there may also be opportunities for the community to donate towards the cost of client care, and for those with limited resources to receive care at a discounted rate. Details on this will be forthcoming but any interested donors should contact Cathy or Deborah to discuss this further.

Category: Capacity Building, Small Business