“Early on, the big challenge was to make sure the co-op members had the right information, took precautions to protect themselves and their customers,” Ms. Morse said. “This is where we really saw the power of the co-op. 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 Up & Go’s workers has contracted Covid-19.
The gig economy, with platforms like Uber, Handy and TaskRabbit, seemed to offer opportunities for freelancers and unskilled workers when it took off after the 2008 recession. But economists soon warned against pitfalls, and the pandemic has disproportionately affected gig economy workers. As independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic protections like minimum wages. The pandemic has put many of them out of work with no safety net or forced some to consider working without adequate protection.
By contrast, the Up & Go worker-owners distribute the existing jobs fairly among themselves, and every worker has agreed to stay home should they develop any symptoms. “A big difference is that we know our rights better,” said Ms. Tapia. “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 appreciates that the co-op members decide collectively whether to approve new members and that if she falls ill, “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 leaves more complex conversations and conflict resolution to professional customer representatives. “It is exactly this clientele we want to serve with Up & Go,” Ms. Morse emphasized. “Historically, this type of work has been done by immigrants and predominantly by women. Racism and sexism have devalued this work.”
Development costs are the biggest hurdle in copying the Up & Go model. Barclays and Robin Hood, an anti-poverty organization in New York City, funded the start-up with $500,000 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; 5 percent goes to support the infrastructure.
“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 said. “When we look at the change in the working world, these questions are important.”
This model will work long-term only 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 said. “Up & Go just can’t do that.”