Brightly Worker-Owned Cleaning Co-op Arrives in Philadelphia

When people think of franchises, the big chains – McDonalds, Starbucks – are usually the first to think.

Large franchises operate by licensing the rights to their brands and designs to individual franchisees, who pay them a percentage of their revenue – and usually pay their workers minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, large corporations benefit the most.

Juan Cuautle and Amalia de la Iglesia want you to think of something different when you hear the word “franchise”.

Cuautle and de la Iglesia work for a Brooklyn-based nonprofit family and social service organization family life center (CFL), where they helped launch Strongly, the nation’s first cooperative and environmentally responsible cleaning services franchise. The franchise focuses on creating worker-owner jobs for immigrants, allowing them to share in the profits and earn a living wage – to pave the way for a better life.

“It’s usually, like, a few people at the top or one person at the top with all the money and power, and then the workers get exploited,” de la Iglesia says. “We looked to social franchises to kind of build a much more fair and democratic mode.”

What is Brightly?

Brightly was formed as part of CFL’s cooperative development initiative. The nearly five-year franchise quickly expanded to five locations serving residential and commercial customers in New York City.

Now they’re partnering with the nonprofit The reception center to add a sixth Brightly, here in Philadelphia. They are planning a local launch by May 2023 and have already begun recruiting and training potential worker-owners in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia. The Goal: To build a better life by creating stable jobs and lifelong agency among hard-working immigrants in Philadelphia as well.

Immigrants make up 14% of the population in Philadelphia, which largely explains the city’s growth over the past decade. In 2018, immigrants also made up about 14% of people living in poverty in Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest major city. It’s not for lack of work – about 67% of the city’s immigrants participate in the labor force, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, based on census data. But many of those jobs — like many held by U.S.-born residents — pay too little to support a family, with the minimum wage hovering at $7.25 for private companies. In 2020, immigrants represented 24% of Philadelphians 16 or older earn minimum wage.

Brightly aims to change that, changing who owns – and benefits from – a cleaning business. Prior to starting Brightly, CFL worked to develop more than 20 co-operative businesses in industries ranging from childcare to DIY services. As program director, Cuautle found that working in multiple industries made it difficult to develop successful co-ops, as they had to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of new professions.

“We are not experts in everything,” explains Cuautle.

So he decided to learn a lesson from the Arizmendi Association, a group of co-op-owned bakeries, landscapers, and construction companies that uses a trustmark to help multiple co-ops in similar industries thrive. Unlike the Arizmendi Association, Brightly is a franchise registered in New York, making it the nation’s franchise. first cooperative franchise owned by legal workers, USA Today reported this year. In 2018, CFL created Brightly as a pilot project in which individual green cleaning co-ops would use franchise branding and a single web platform to book appointments.

Cuautle says they focused on the cleaning industry because the profession has few licensing requirements, making it easier to start new businesses, and because many of the immigrants CFL primarily serves in the neighborhood from Sunset Park in Brooklyn have work experience in the industry. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 18.5% of housekeepers in the United States are immigrants. The industry is also ripe for exploitation: compensation violations, harassment and abuse by customers are commonplace, The Guardian reports.

CFL’s goal for Brightly: to create a franchise that would pay high, reliable wages and provide security and stability to its workers through a cooperative model where workers are their own bosses. Brilliant cleaners earn an average of $31 per hour; the typical salary for a house cleaner in New York is $19.77 per hour and $16.86 per hour for office cleaners, by Indeed. In Philadelphia, the average salary is $18.54 per hour for a housekeeper and $15.20 per hour for a cleaning officer.

Almost all members of the cooperative are women. All are immigrants. None are required to provide documentation status.

Brightly also aims to remove the financial barriers that workers face when starting a franchise. Most cleaning franchises in New York charge an upfront fee of “over $60,000“, according to data from Brightly’s website. There is no cost to become a Brightly franchisee, just a 5% monthly royalty on each location’s revenue. This royalty is used to fund customer service, marketing , technology, training, and other efforts to make Brightly self-sufficient for the long term.

Most franchises charge monthly fees ranging from 4 percent to 12 percent sales, reports the US Small Business Administration; some charge extra. McDonalds, for example, charges a franchise fee of about five percent plus advertising costs, plus, in most cases, rent, reports The Guardian.

For now, the CFL continues to fund the program through its other fundraising efforts. Currently, there are five Brightly co-ops serving over 1,000 customers, in Washington Heights, Carroll Gardens, East Harlem, Tribeca and Staten Island. The franchise has approximately 40 worker-owners. (The number fluctuates as people leave and join cooperatives). Cooperatives are limited to 25 members. Many set aside up to 15% of each month’s earnings for individual management fees.

Brightly Coop employees also share in the benefits of their individual franchise and have a say in making decisions, such as what rates to set for services. If a franchise-wide decision needs to be made, members from all locations come together. This is how they decided to require their workers to be vaccinated against Covid.

“One worker, one vote,” says Cuautle. “They discuss any subject concerning business and decide together what they are going to do.”

CFL partners with community organizations to launch new Brightly Co-ops and provide job opportunities for locals looking for work. When they started the Tribeca Co-op, for example, they partnered with a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Here in Philadelphia, they worked with The Welcoming Center, a non-profit organization that creates local economic opportunities for people from other countries.

Each Brightly Co-op begins with an incubation period during which CFL teaches members about co-op governance, clarifies legal issues and management strategies, and trains them in their cleaning procedures.

How Brightly came to Philadelphia

For Nicole Marcote, program manager for the Welcome Center’s entrepreneurship programs, Brightly’s franchise model addresses some of the challenges she’s seen immigrant entrepreneurs face. “I’ve always been very interested in cooperatives,” says Marcote. “What we realized – perhaps very similar to what Juan realized – is that supporting a collective of entrepreneurs who share an industry is much easier than providing individual technical assistance.”

In 2019, the Visitor Center helped a dozen artists sell their wares at local craft and farmer’s markets. For Marcote, starting a co-op business, even if it was in a different industry, seemed like a logical next step. The model will help immigrants to the city and women doing unskilled work build equity by creating stable, well-paying jobs – and convey a sense of pride in belonging.

“It’s not really just a job, it’s your business,” she says. “There is always an entrepreneur in everyone, but not everyone is lucky enough to realize those dreams. So we hope this is an opportunity.

The Philadelphia Co-op will also share Get on and go, Brightly’s member-owned online scheduling system and app. Cuautle says the platform helps Brightly compete with apps like TaskRabbit, which takes 15 percent the cost of each job of its workers. Up & Go also prioritizes worker flexibility, allowing cleaners to choose the days that work best for them. The workers set the rates upon arrival based on the condition of the house. “The goal is to give workers a little more power,” says de la Iglesia.

If the initial launch is successful, Marcote plans to add more sites in Philadelphia. “We’re not as big as New York,” she says, “but I think there are definitely areas [to expand]. In the Northeast there is also a large immigrant population, so we can see how this model could work there as well.

As for the bigger franchise, Cuautle says they will continue to expand to other cities. They received requests from organizations in Colorado, Florida, Michigan and California.

Currently, Marcote expects the co-op to be able to establish its headquarters in South Philly; this is where most of the people who came to the briefings live. She expects them to serve commercial spaces in the city center. But that decision – and any decisions about profit sharing and hourly wages – will ultimately be made by local Brightly worker-owners. Because that’s how co-ops thrive.

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