Waushara County and
An Enduring Partnership
by Kathleen McGwin
Waushara County Director of
Human Services Lucy Rowley, obtained a grant from the State of Wisconsin’s
Community Links program in 1999 to study the possibility of creating a direct
care worker cooperative. “I read about a cooperative of direct care workers out
in the Bronx in New York,” said Rowley, “and I asked myself: why couldn’t we do
something like that here in Waushara County?”
Rowley wrote and obtained the
grant which allowed the hiring of consultant Dianne Harrington. Harrington’s
feasibility study showed a long-term need for home care workers in the county
and also probed the likelihood that workers would buy into the idea of a
cooperative. On this basis, Rowley gained another grant to assemble a business
plan. Again, Harrington was hired to do the job. And then the women hit upon
the mother lode. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had just hired a new
Cooperative Development Specialist, Margaret Bau. Located in Stevens Point,
just 45 miles from Wautoma, the Waushara County Seat, she proved to be an
invaluable source of support for the project.
“We knew we wanted a
cooperative and we knew it couldn’t be exactly like the coop in the Bronx,”
said Rowley. “So we built the concept piece by piece as it would work in
Waushara County.” The Bronx cooperative, Cooperative Homecare Associates, is
designed to train mothers on welfare to enter the workforce as certified
nursing assistants. While Waushara County wanted more direct care workers
trained as nursing assistants, they already had a steady workforce in place.
“Our biggest need was to help
the workers into an organization that would offer them workers compensation, a
fair wage, and other benefits,” said Rowley. Cooperative Care did just that.
Before the organization of the coop, workers in the county were considered
domestic help and technically worked for the client they were caring for. Pay
was low and there were no benefits, not even workers’ compensation. Rowley saw
two main needs. One was to assure a quality workforce for aging and disabled
citizens of Waushara County. The other was to give fair compensation to people
doing this work. She saw the two needs as interwoven―each one
dependent on the other.
Why a Cooperative?
In a rural county such as
Waushara, cooperatives are an accepted way of doing business. People living in
rural areas frequently belong to electrical coops, farm coops, natural gas
coops and others. The idea is not a foreign one to Waushara County citizens.
Cooperatives increase buy-in
and participation from the workers. They also offer financial benefits to the
worker. The control of the business lies in the Board of Directors. In
Cooperative Care, all of the board members are member/workers who give direct
care to clients. Board members experience the same on-the-job concerns as all
the direct care workers. The board sets policy and oversees the financial and
business interest of the cooperative. Any member can run for a board position.
Workers in cooperatives have
a personal interest in seeing that the business is run efficiently and
effectively. Any net profit at the end of the fiscal year belongs to members
who worked in that year. Profits are divided up according to hours worked and
the Board of Directors decides how much will be paid out to the members in
cash. Money that is not paid out still belongs to the workers and it is held by
the cooperative as retained equity. When members leave the coop, the retained
equity is theirs and it is paid out over time according to the by-laws.
Forming the cooperative in
Waushara County depended on the advice, support and help of numerous
organizations and individuals. Besides the guidance of USDA’s Margaret Bau,
Rowley and Harrington enlisted the help of Amy Pietsch from Community Action
Program (CAP) to help with a business plan.
Mandatory meetings were held with the care givers in the
county. They were educated about cooperatives and the business plan being
developed in Waushara County. The workers showed interest, formed a steering
committee, and eventually a board of directors. The board signed Articles of
Incorporation and Cooperative Care was formed.
The next step was to obtain a
business loan. With no capital or equity, the founders approached local
financial institutions. The Waushara County Board was a key partner in this
effort to raise capital. The Board showed foresight, trust, and commitment to
the care of elderly and people with disabilities in the county―and to
the workforce which keeps people out of institutions and in their homes. By
offering and signing a contract with Cooperative Care, the County Board
provided the stability needed for Farmers’ State Bank of Waupaca in Wild Rose
to lend $125,000 in start up funds for the newly formed cooperative.
The Cooperative and the County
Projections indicated about a
tewnty-six percent cost increase to the Waushara County to utilize the services
of Cooperative Care. This estimate was low and the increase ended up close to
fourty percent. Rowley points out that Waushara County was paying exceedingly
low wages to the workers before the coop was formed. Some of the increase must
be seen as costs to bring the wages up to a fair and market level.
The initial increase in cost
actually dropped, however, after the first year. The county was able to delete
a position which did the scheduling for the workers. Also, rates were
renegotiated downward in the second contract year. Finally, the county
scrupulously took advantage of streamlining their procedures so that the staff
could do more billable time as well as taking advantage of other ways to
increase their revenue.
There are many benefits to
the county. There is a more stable and better trained workforce. Tax dollars
are going more directly to the frontline staff through a flat, low overhead
cooperative business structure. More stable, decent paying jobs are now
available in Waushara County. Cooperative Care workers now have workers’
compensation, paid personal leave, access to health insurance, overtime pay,
holiday pay and other benefits. Workers have income to spend in the county.
Waushara County’s risk of
liability for the care, health and safety of elderly and disabled citizens has
been greatly lowered with the formation of Cooperative Care. Additionally, all
issues between consumers and workers, coverage, training, and meeting
employment standards are now the responsibility of the cooperative rather than
Cooperative Care is now in
its sixth year of successful operation. Though Lucy Rowley retired in 2004, the
cooperative is on firm ground. The following statement from Cooperative Care
that distinguishes between an “owner vision” (a member of the coop) and the
vision of an “employee” who works in a traditional work-site may help to
explain Cooperative Care’s success:
• Good owners (cooperators) look to the long range health of
the organization, whereas employees may be concerned only with their tenure at
• Owners understand the impact of poor customer service
on the organization, whereas employees may not see the impact beyond the
• Owners put personal irritations or defenses aside in
order to do what is best for the company, whereas employees may defend
themselves, focus on slights, etc.
• Owners hold a broad view of what the company does in
relation not only to customers, but to workers and the community, whereas
employees may never think about how the organization fits into government, the
community, the employment picture, etc.
• Owners regularly look for ways to learn more about
the company, its customers, its market, and the workers. They read the
newsletter, attend meetings, and ask questions, whereas employees may also want
to take the shortest route to what they see as merely a paycheck.
• Owner value everyone associated with the company,
whereas an employee may value only those who are in their immediate sphere of
making their job go well.
• Owners refrain from placing self as the #1 priority
and see the organization as #1, whereas an employee may be most concerned with
getting out of the company all he or she can while they work there, even to the
detriment of the company.
• Owners view themselves as a part of the whole, whereas
an employee may hold a limited view of their impact on others and see
themselves as an island, not integral.
• Owners ask what they can do to solve a problem, whereas
employees may look to others to solve problems.
• Owners consider how decisions affect other workers
and the organization, help develop standards of performance and model those for
others, and work to build relationships with other owners, whereas employees
may view others only in relation to making their job easier and only it they
are in direct contact with them.
• Owners take actions that are in the interest of the
company, not only those that are in their self interest. Owners try to
follow rules and procedures to make it easier on others who depend on
timeliness, etc., whereas employees may only
think about themselves and their convenience.
• Owners become teachers and mentors to others.
Kathleen McGwin is the Executive Director
of Cooperative Care in Wautoma, Wisconsin.
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