Jo Ann McNerthney learned about elder care up-close when her father moved from Tacoma into her Bellingham house nearly eight years ago. Her father's wife could no longer care for him because he had Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and recent back surgery.
Caregivers from a local agency helped her tend to her father, but he was so feisty that they dropped him as a client. So McNerthney, who has a background in accounting, and her father hired their own caregivers.
Steeped in that experience, McNerthney, who had done work years ago for a worker-owned tree-planting collective, decided a similar approach could benefit caregivers.
"They're so isolated and underpaid, and so valuable," she said. "It seemed like a great industry to apply the model to."
So she organized Circle of Life Caregiver Cooperative to provide home care, with the caregivers in charge as member-owners. Business was slow at first.
"I don't think people took us seriously at the beginning," McNerthney said.
But business has mushroomed, and on Feb. 7 the member-owners celebrated Circle of Life's fifth anniversary and distributed $90,000 in profits among themselves. The profit bonus, in effect, added $2.78 an hour to the caregivers' pay.
The year before, Circle of Life distributed $27,000 in profits.
"It's a joy to go to work every day," said caregiver Jan Fransen of Bellingham, a new member. "It gives you ownership-type responsibility, instead of working for a humdrum company."
One of five home care cooperatives in the United States, Circle of Life now has 51 caregivers, including nine hired this year. All but three are women.
Some of the caregivers work a few hours a week; some work full-time-plus. They help Whatcom County seniors and people with disabilities stay in their homes by providing help with laundry, dishwashing, cleaning, errands, cooking, personal care and other activities of daily living.
McNerthney, the administrator, and Deborah Craig, the caregiver coordinator, stay busy handling the business side, training, insurance and, especially, the scheduling.
"Everybody's always on-call," McNerthney said. "It's a match-making service we provide, in a lot of ways."
McNerthney and Craig are employees, not members. Caregivers, after a three-month probationary period, become member-owners who govern Circle of Life by choosing among themselves to elect the seven board members.
Alice Robb of Custer has been a caregiver off and off since 1993, and has been with Circle of Life for much of its existence. She has been a caregiver with private clients, but said that can be difficult because there's no backup assistance or help with the business side. She also has worked for agencies, but said they can be impersonal.
For Robb, working where the employees are the owners strikes a happy, cooperative balance.
"People want to know one another," she said. "We want to be teams."
Home care remains a low-pay industry. At Circle of Life, caregivers are paid $13.75 to $19.25 an hour for shifts of one to three hours, and $11.50 an hour (soon to be $12.50) for shifts longer than three hours.
"It's a low-income business," Robb said, "but it's good people doing this work."
The work can be challenging, but offers the reward of helping people in a direct way. Fransen said being a member-owner brings the added benefit of improved morale, and provides an extra reason to treat clients well.
"You do the best job you can do because it all reflects on us," she said. "I'm really proud to be involved in it."
What: Circle of Life Caregiver Cooperative
Address: 103 E. Holly St., Suite 408, Bellingham
Contact: 360-647-1537, circleoflifeco-op.com.
Alice Robb's first year as a caregiver was corrected Feb. 18. 2014.
Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or firstname.lastname@example.org .