Home care co-ops could ease Nebraska’s senior crisis

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Only 15 cooperatives operate in the country, but UNL is taking steps to bring the idea here

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – With more retirement homes closing in Nebraska, many people are looking for immediate solutions.

A relatively new idea can be useful, and the The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is trying to introduce it to Nebraska.

Home care worker co-ops are successful in both Washington state and New York, but it’s still a fairly unexplored idea, as there are only 15 of them nationwide.

Elderly people would continue to live in their own homes and home health aides would come to them. Workers would then be their own boss, so they would control their wages, benefits, and work-life balance.

“I think the co-op business model provides an alternative to other workplaces that young people who are really concerned about social justice and getting fair pay and democracy, I think they would be attracted to the model” , said Deborah Craig, a co-op developer in Washington. “The democratic workplace really attracts people who want to be empowered, who want to contribute to something bigger than themselves.”

This idea would be primarily for rural Nebraska.

“Just as school districts have consolidated, I think co-ops could have areas of consolidation as co-op zones,” said Heidi Thomas, who wants to start a home care co-op in Nebraska.

The cooperative model has succeeded because there are no managers responsible for the workers.

“So that reduces what they have to charge to make the same profit and pay themselves a very competitive salary,” said Cynthia Houlden, co-op coordinator at UNL. “Across the country, co-ops tend to pay $2-3 more per hour, offer better benefits and better work-life balance.”

A resident of a Nebraska nursing home had to move the day after her 106th birthday because it closed.

“Once you leave your network of people who love you and love you back, I think it’s a dangerous place to go with older and disabled people on that level,” Thomas said.

Thomas worked at his local nursing home where her husband lived. She became a certified practical nurse in order to see him during the pandemic, but then her facility closed and she had to take him home to avoid moving him to an out-of-town facility.

“People also shouldn’t think they have to go to another community to get care,” Thomas said. “You should be able to receive care where you have always been.”

Home care co-ops are not currently an option in Nebraska, but the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center at UNL is running a pilot program in partnership with a group in Washington.

The program teaches the first generation of those who would run home care cooperatives in Nebraska.

Craig said there were only 15 home care co-ops in the whole country. She said the largest, in New York’s Bronx borough, has 2,500 employees.

“The potential is there to do something really big or do something small,” Craig said.

In the future, proponents hope this idea will grow and help older people stay in their homes.

They also hope to strike a balance between paying workers a dignified rate and keeping it affordable for seniors.

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