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The Weekend Shift

The Weekend Shift: Cleaning Houses

Daniela Gerson

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Luz, Vice President of We Can Do It
(Victor Castillo)
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The last thing most people want to do on a weekend is housework. But a group of immigrant women in New York are proud to spend their weekends dusting and mopping. "We Can Do It" is a Brooklyn business run by cleaning ladies, many of them without working papers or education beyond elementary school.

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It's a Saturday afternoon, and Monica Valerio is cleaning her second Brooklyn brownstone for the day. But the middle-aged Dominican woman scrubs with an almost exuberant energy. Valerio is a pro. Ever since immigrating to the US nearly two decades ago, she has been cleaning New York City homes. For most of those years, Valerio found her jobs through word of mouth or posting flyers. Then she entered strange homes alone. If the client decided not to pay her, Valerio had virtually no recourse. That is, until a client surprised her with a proposition.

For most of 20 years, Valerio has quietly scrubbed bathrooms and classrooms here at the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The organization provides assistance, including job placement, to the needy. Two years ago the nonprofit had a problem and thought Valerio might just be the person to help solve it.

First though, some background: In recent years, Sunset Park has emerged as one of New York's magnets for new immigrants. Julie Jean-Francois, a co-director of the Center, says the organization was failing to get them jobs.

"Partly because of their literacy level, partly because of their English language limitations and partly because of their immigration status," says Jean-Francois. "And so all of us were beginning to see more and more people in these very discouraging situations starting to look for work on their own. We thought about what to do about it. And there really aren't many programs that deal with it."

So the Center staff decided to start something new: A cleaning company run and owned by the immigrants themselves. If the counselors couldn't find someone to give the neighborhood women a regular job, they could help them become their own bosses. To get it started, Jean-Francois says they turned to an expert cleaner in their midst: Monica Valerio.

"Monica has worked for the Center for Family Life for 20 years, and was never consulted in any way, shape or form on her opinion about any matter," he says. "Within one year of being the president of the cooperative, she's problem solving and she's doing conflict resolution."

With Valerio taking the lead, the members named the group "We Can Do It," an Americanized take on "Si Se Puede." But it wasn't easy transforming self-employed cleaning ladies into a cooperative. A few of the women were illiterate. Not many had ever done much financial planning beyond the next job. Still, as soon as word spread about the prospect of regular, secure work, immigrant women began flocking to the meetings.

Early one evening, dozens of cleaning ladies armed with folders and notebooks pack a second floor meeting room. Valerio strides in, transformed from her practical work clothes to tight pants and strappy sandals, and is greeted by all. A discussion gets started about how to interpret the organization's bylaws. The women, many of them illegal immigrants, are becoming experts in running their own American business. But Jean-Francois says lawyers assured them that they weren't breaking any laws.

"The interesting issue we began to understand is that immigration law and labor law actually don't connect to each other," Jean-Francois says. "So if people are worker-owners of companies, which is the cooperative model, there is no barrier to people... owning a business, and that's what a cooperative is."

Valerio is among the legal residents in the group, but she still feels We Can Do It has transformed her working life. When she completes her Saturday afternoon job, she presents the apartment's owner, Russell Langsam, with a contract outlining just what she's cleaned, and how much she expects to be paid.

"What was included today?" Landsam asks. Valerio responds, "That was included today only for the kitchen, for the living room, for the bathroom."

The members of the co-op set their own rules and wages. They insist they should be paid by the job and not by the hour. Now many are making twice as much money for their time. And Valerio says they've created a model for others in the community.

Valerio says she feels proud of being a member of We Can Do It: It's made her into a leader and a public speaker. Now she's helping to set up new co-ops for handymen and babysitters. And when Valerio's out on a job, she knows if a client doesn't pay up, she has a social worker, a lawyer, and dozens of other cleaning ladies backing her up.

  • Music Bridge:
    Loud Pipes
    Artist: Ratatat
    CD: Classics (Xl)
More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

Comments

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  • By Luna Martin

    From White Lake, MI, 03/31/2014

    Okay, so some of the women in this group are illegal, making a 'living wage', etc., so my question is, where does the tax paying come into the picture?

    By rosita padarat

    From queens ny, NY, 12/20/2008

    I am a immigrant too and I feel very proud to see women do what they have to do to accomplish what they need I am also a person who is looking for a job in this fiel please if you can be of assistance to e please e.mail me thank you god all in need

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