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CCHD grant funds help worker-owners start cleaning co-op in Arlington

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Lorena Contreras has been cleaning houses in Northern Virginia for more than a decade, but she always worked for other people.

Our goal is to have a job that makes our lives better and eventually make more jobs for other workers, and pay them what they deserve." Co-op worker-owner Lorena Contreras

Sometimes the owners of the companies she worked for made her work longer hours than scheduled, or didn’t pay her on time, or didn’t pay her for all the hours she worked. As a woman and an immigrant — she came to Arlington from Honduras 13 years ago — there seemed little she could do about it.

But now Lorena and two other house cleaners — her sister, Dilcia Contreras, and their friend, Anita Maldonado — are starting their own business, a cleaning co-op. They won’t have to give the money they earn to the owner of the cleaning company — they are the owners. And when they get enough clients, they hope to hire other women.

“We are going to pay workers fairly, so they don’t feel exploited,” said Lorena. “We will trust in God that we’re going to find customers, and we will work hard.”

The business they’re creating is the first co-op to be launched by NOVALACIRO, a community organization in the low-income, mostly Latino Columbia Pike corridor in South Arlington. The group receives grant funds from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Since its beginnings in 1969, CCHD has made nearly 12,000 grants totaling more than $400 million to projects created and managed by people with low incomes. Most of the funding comes from CCHD’s November Mass collections in dioceses across the country; 25 percent of the amount collected remains in the diocese to fund local projects.

“The bishops created CCHD to address the root causes of poverty, rather than simply provide direct service to satisfy immediate needs, such as food, which the church already did so well,” said Carla Walsh, coordinator of the diocesan program office for CCHD.

Over the past 18 months, after listening to the needs of its community, NOVALACIRO (short for Northern Virginia Latin American Civil Rights Organization) made its top priority the creation and support of worker-owned cooperatives, businesses that the workers themselves own and invest in. Decision-making is democratic, with each worker given an equal share of power. CCHD supports co-ops because they empower low-income employees as they work their way out of poverty.

Many people are afraid to start their own business, “but we are here to let our community know they can do it, and we can help them,” said NOVALACIRO organizer Heylin Rodriguez, a parishioner of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington. She said a number of parishioners are involved and benefit from NOVALACIRO’s work. 

Domestic workers such as house cleaners are three times as likely to be living in poverty as other workers, and only one in five receives health insurance coverage through their job, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. There are more than 7,700 house cleaners in Virginia and more than 344,000 nationally, the group says, adding that 92 percent of domestic workers are women, and more than half are racial minorities.

Despite delays during the pandemic, the new co-op finally launched in late October. It’s called Mujeres Manos a la Obra, an idiom that translates roughly as “Women Get Down to Work” — which the three founding worker-owners are eager to do.

They’ve been meeting with Rodriguez and Bianca Vasquez of the Beloved Community Incubator in Washington to develop leadership skills and learn about good business management practices that they will need to run the co-op successfully. “We’ve been going to meetings every week for a year,” said Dilcia.

They’ve also invested their own money as part of the grant match, purchasing equipment such as vacuum cleaners, mops and boxes of cleaning supplies.

“We want to get started,” Anita said at a neighborhood cookout Oct. 23 to celebrate the launch. “This project is really good, and it motivates us because they are helping us a lot.”

“Our goal is to have a job that makes our lives better and eventually make more jobs for other workers, and pay them what they deserve,” added Lorena, who is also on the NOVALACIRO board.

At the party, the worker-owners mingled with the other board members and posed for photos with a large cake decorated in pink sugar flowers and the words “Mujeres Manos a la Obra, Congratulations!” Husbands cooked hot dogs on the grill and children and grandchildren played, waiting for the cake to be cut.

“Are you proud of your mom and her work?” someone asked Lorena’s daughter, Katherine Hernandez, 12, who stood near her mom with her little brother, Christopher, 4.

“Very,” Katherine said.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021