Local cooperative could better serve clients, providers
In-home health aid Laura Turner, a Methow Valley independent care provider, recently accepted a job working 24-hour shifts at a facility in Omak. She doesn’t mind the long shifts, but she’d rather be doing them in the Methow Valley.
When Turner lived on the west side for a while, there were hundreds of clients without caregivers, but in the valley she simply doesn’t have access to the number of clients she needs in order to make a living. Turner has been caring for a small handful of private-pay clients, but if a client lands in the hospital or reduces her caregiving hours, Turner has a hard time replacing that income. So Turner is joining Room One and other caregivers in exploring the idea of a valley-based caregiver cooperative.
Caregiver cooperatives, or co-ops, are employee-owned and operated, and are springing up all over the nation as innovative alternatives to traditional caregiver agencies. In a caregiver co-op, caregivers design their own operating systems, determine wages collectively, network to provide reliable care to clients, and decide how to profit-share. Caregiver cooperatives typically offer higher wages, better benefits, and more sustainable employment, resulting in more consistent care for clients.
In Turner’s case, the consistency and adequacy of care, plus the sustainability of the employment, are the top reasons for her interest in establishing a local cooperative. “With a co-op,” says Turner, “it wouldn’t matter if a single client reduced hours, because we’d all network for providing care, and could pick up hours by covering for each other’s time off. It would help us get enough hours, within a flexible schedule, and we’d be better situated to get clients’ needs met.”
Better access, efficiency
Most clients don’t need full-time care, which means that caregivers typically travel among several clients, often geographically quite distant from each other. In Okanogan County, that distance can cost caregivers significantly, in both time and mileage expenses. In a caregiver cooperative, caregivers would be in a better position to access clients in designated areas, and spend less unpaid time on the road.
Other benefits, Turner says, would be that clients would be familiar with several caregivers. “Clients get very attached to you,” says Turner. “And if you are on vacation, or can’t come that day due to a doctor’s appointment, or illness, or your kids’ needs, they can get anxious or feel abandoned.” A network of familiar caregivers would alleviate that stress for clients.
Room One got involved with the caregiver issue when they noticed that quite a few caregivers and care receivers were coming into Room One for support. Caregivers were seeking help in making ends meet financially, and care receivers — especially those on Medicaid or with low incomes — were having trouble finding caregivers. “We were motivated to help with both aspects of the caregiver relationship,” says Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One. “We wanted to support both caregivers and their clients.”
“We started by bringing a group of caregivers together for a discussion,” Mainer continues, “and we learned about several common challenges for caregivers in our area.”
First, says Mainer, caregiver compensation is often insufficient to support an individual, let alone one with a family — “$14 to $15 an hour doesn’t go far in the Methow Valley,” says Mainer, “especially when you consider that many of these caregivers do not receive any benefits and must cover their own transportation costs to clients’ houses.”
Another problem is that when clients get sick and have to enter a hospital, it can often take three weeks for the caregiver to begin working for another client, during which time they are not drawing a paycheck.
Caregivers frequently work in isolation, without a peer support group, which is a common concern for caregivers across the country, especially in rural locations. And they also lack access to the continuing education training required by the agencies that employ them.
“These are widespread problems with caregiving in our country, and especially in our county,” says Mainer. “We have an aging population here. The Methow Valley is aging at a faster rate than the rest of the state. Caregivers are essential to allowing people to continue to live with dignity in their homes into old age. But given their low wages, caregivers need affordable housing, access to health care, the assurance of steady employment, peer support, and convenient training opportunities.”
Most of us will need some sort of care later in life, and many of us will turn to professional caregivers — if we can find them. If a caregiver shortage isn’t already upon us — and studies suggest it is — it soon will be. Paul Osterman, who teaches human resources and management at MIT, says that by the year 2030 the caregiver shortage will be critical: up to 150,000 professional caregivers and 3.8 million unpaid family caregivers. With our dramatically aging population in the Methow Valley, that critical shortage will reach us sooner. It should matter to us that caregiving is not, in many situations, a sustainable long-term profession.
“Caregivers have a lot of unknowns in their lives,” Maureen Collins, a client services at Room One adds. “We need a creative solution to support them.”
“We’re so curious about an innovative version of what a caregiver cooperative could look like in this valley,” adds Mainer. “It seems like this is the type of infrastructure we should invest in.”
Room One does already invest in caregivers through some of its existing services, Mainer acknowledges. Room One facilitates a family caregiver support group. It serves as a resource referral for those seeking caregivers. It helps caregivers navigate health insurance, financial planning and income reporting, as many caregivers have fluctuating incomes.
Room One also recognizes that expenses are rising faster than incomes in the valley, notes Collins, and helps caregivers gain access to community events and resources that support a quality lifestyle, such as free passes to the Wagner Memorial Pool and complementary tickets to arts and culture events.
A few weeks ago, Room One held two community meetings to explore the idea of a caregiver cooperative. The next steps will be forming a steering committee to gauge interest, doing some outreach to spread the word, exploring the financial feasibility of such a venture, and looking into funding startup costs. “We’ve learned from other caregiver cooperatives that startup costs are about $30,000,” says Collins. “And it takes about nine months for licensing and insurance. Room One could help locate resources, and startup costs could come from investment networks, loans, or donations, or a combination of funding.”
“We are in a great community for this type of cooperative, if it’s what caregivers want,” Collins and Mainer agree. The Methow Valley is so receptive to efforts to support different segments of the population, to ensure that we are a diverse community where residents feel secure: the Lookout Coalition, Methow Housing Trust, Little Star South Collaborative, Jamie’s Place, Methow at Home, and the Methow Long Term Recovery Organization.
Turner adds, “a lot of things get created in this valley because of a need. Look at Jamie’s Place. More caregivers might allow more people to remain in their homes longer here.” Turner also notes that the increasingly aging population needing care would provide full and part-time employment for valley residents. “It’s a new job market in our area,” she says. “Young people starting out careers could do it, or active retired people could do it to give back to the community and make a little pocket money.”
For Turner, the many benefits of a caregiver cooperative boil down to preserving communities, both caregiver communities and client communities. With caregivers collaborating to provide better care to clients and making their own jobs more sustainable in the process, the co-op appears to be a proverbial win-win situation. “We would network together and help each other out,” Turner says of a caregiver cooperative, “That’s what we would have to offer the Methow Valley.”
If you’re interested in joining the caregiver cooperative steering committee, contact Room One at 997-2050.