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A Quiet Workplace Revolution in the Shadow of Silicon Valley

How a luxury doggy daycare became an unlikely model of the future of work

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

The news came on a Wednesday morning: Every Dog Has Its Day Care, a luxury daycare for dogs, would be shutting down in June 2019. The staff was in the dark. An email from owner Lauren Westreich, addressed to the clients, offered no clarification. Standard of care would not change. Refunds would be honored. With deep gratitude, Lauren. Six days later, Westreich listed the property for $6.75 million.

The daycare had been in the East Bay for 22 years, and clients flocked to the state-of-the-art, slightly over-the-top facility: 25,000 square feet equipped with a special puppy nursery, a spa room for grooming, two wading pools, and large play areas. Daily operations fell to a team of co-managers that included Lindsey Parker and Katie Wojnoonski. It offered decent wages, benefits, and flexibility. It was the kind of place workers wanted to stick around. Carla, a middle-aged dog handler known for singing to the senior dogs, told me that she found the work therapeutic and stress-free. She had no intention of leaving. Neither did Parker, who was in her fourth year with the company, or Wojnoonski, who was in her sixth. Now everyone had 11 weeks to find new jobs.

Aide, a dog handler and shift leader, remembered this period as being really scary. “My first thought when I heard they were gonna close the daycare was, Oh my God, I need to find another job. I’m a college student, so I need a way to pay for my school and my bills,” she said. “I needed a backup right away.”

When the shock wore off some, clients Kelly Hall and Ra (pronounced “Ray”) Criscitiello—owners of a springer spaniel named Lewis and a pit bull mix named Doughy, respectively—approached the managers with an idea: What if there was a way to buy the daycare and hand the keys to the staff?

As the deputy director of research for a large union chapter, Criscitiello had helped nursing professionals organize into worker cooperatives and thought the daycare seemed like a good candidate. Co-ops can take various shapes, but rather than any legal description, what makes a worker co-op drills down to two central features: employee ownership and democratic control through a board of directors, an elected body composed of at least 50 percent employees. If they could pull this idea off, collective ownership would protect both employees and clients against the whims of the next rich person looking to cash out.

It might be strange to see unions back the making of workers into managers, when their mission typically sees these roles as adversarial. But Criscitiello told me that her priority is building people power. A greater say in the company’s affairs can translate into better pay, as the workers’ interests finally align with the owners’. Co-ops present a chance to set and protect one’s work conditions, a waning privilege as the gig economy expands its tentacles, while all around the country, public-sector unions fend off attacks from both state legislatures and courtrooms hostile to labor rights. For undocumented worker-owners, this model can mean a living wage without risking their livelihood: Owner status limits the personal information that gets reported to the federal government. (Through Form I-9, employers must certify that their employees are legally permitted to work on U.S. soil, but the administrative court that decides employment cases involving immigration status, the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer, has ruled that worker-owners don’t need to fill out this form.) In this grim reality, Criscitiello believes that unions cannot keep doing more of the same. “It’s time for a new paradigm,” she said.

With the co-managers on their side, Hall and Criscitiello reached out to potential investors with a pitch that would’ve laughed them out of Silicon Valley. There was a lot to love about the daycare, and it was doing well financially, facts that they made sure to emphasize. But they were also frank that this was a social investment, which is to say it was not the most lucrative option, under the traditional rubric that guides these kinds of decisions. There was no question that investors could obtain stronger returns elsewhere, but Hall told them that putting their money in the daycare “was a thing to do because you really are attached to the institution and the people who run it and the place that your dog really cares about.”

In her pitch, Hall warned that this could potentially be a high-risk loan, that investors might hand the keys to the workers and have little say or control on the company’s board. Their stake would be small and profit modest, if any. The building would be held by the co-op. If the property ever sold, the workers would have a say in the distribution of the profits.

It was a long shot. Even if they could raise millions of dollars, there were bylaws to hammer out and employees to educate and then consult for their input. Criscitiello had seen the process take more than a year. Their little team had two months, and less time than that if Westreich accepted an offer from other developers circling the building.

Were this any other gentrification-fueled contest around the Bay Area, the daycare staff and clients might’ve been pitted against each other. Displacer against displaced. The wealthy against the working class. But this fight was different. They had come to agree that protecting these 65 jobs, and avoiding a sale, would benefit almost all involved. Hall and Criscitiello hoped this would be enough to save the daycare.

People have collectivized their labor for centuries. In twelfth-century Florence, 14 guilds called Arti Minori represented the interests of a range of artisans in petty trades, from butchers and stonemasons to innkeepers and bakers. But the modern employee-owned co-op is a product of the mid-twentieth century. Influential in its spread to America was the creative resistance to General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. A young Catholic priest named Jose María Arizmendiarrieta opened a vocational school in the small Basque town of Mondragon in 1943. Among other teachings, he emphasized self-management and workplace democracy. Thirteen years later, the priest helped five of his students form an employee-owned factory. They made kitchen appliances. With assistance from Arizmendiarrieta and the students, worker co-ops mushroomed and merged around the province. The present-day Mondragon Corporation counts some 75,000 employees, of whom 30,000 are members.

Several companies in the Bay Area have followed Mondragon’s model of solidarity. The Cheese Board Collective, a Berkeley food shop that became employee-owned in 1971, has lent technical and financial support to later generations of worker co-ops that have gone on to assist others. Among them: Arizmendi, a bakery chain proudly named after the radical priest.

Most employees at Every Dog Has Its Day Care didn’t know much, if anything at all, about worker co-ops until early conversations about the daycare becoming one. Aide, the college student, said she had never thought about the model before but liked the idea of worker ownership: “It was really exciting because we were going to be part of the new business when it was going to switch.” Ceilidh had been a dog handler for a year at that point. She had some concerns about taking on more responsibility, and the impact it would have on her ability to give personal attention to the dogs. But Ceilidh was also optimistic about getting more employee input in the company. “Having so many people in a brainstorming session produces a ton of bad ideas,” she said, “but that’s how good ideas come about: The environment to bounce around and refine concepts until something impossible to execute becomes a valid proposal with a plan.”

The location of the daycare may have had something to do with this sense of possibility: The Bay Area boasts one of the highest concentrations of worker co-ops in the United States. Though California has a relatively friendly regime of laws, advocacy groups have pushed for simplifying the formation process for pure worker co-ops and hybrids co-owned by consumers and workers. One recent effort culminated in the passage of Assembly Bill 816, a statute that eases fundraising and defines worker co-ops clearly, so the label isn’t claimed without the matching structures in place.

Municipalities in the Bay Area have also experimented with providing support. In 2012, after its mayor visited the town of Mondragon, Richmond piloted a one-year fund of $50,000 to make loans to worker co-ops. Three years later, Oakland passed a resolution pledging to “provide tailored resources created by community organizations and make referrals to technical assistance providers” for potential worker co-ops. So far, however, one of the most concrete commitments has come from Berkeley, which pledged $100,000 to support worker co-ops. Meanwhile, San Francisco is partnering with the Bay Area–based nonprofit Project Equity to encourage private owners to transfer their small businesses to employees rather than close.

Project Equity is particularly concerned with what it calls the silver tsunami: an impending wave of small business closures as baby boomers leave the workforce and shut down their businesses rather than sell or pass them down. Alison Lingane, a co-founder of the nonprofit, sees this as an opportunity to convince these older private owners to empower their employees. The key is to educate them about employee-ownership; once this happens, Lingane said, “there are so many good things about it that it’s not that hard to get them on board.”

Still, negotiations on the daycare proved challenging. The co-op would need at least $2 million for a mortgage downpayment and then acquiring the business itself. It went back and forth with Westreich on the price of the property and naming rights. The time crunch made everything tenser and more complicated. Meanwhile, the team was still searching for larger investors.

Raising capital is often the most difficult aspect of forming a co-op. In theory, states should be all over them. The model is good for pro-business conservatives who venerate small business and entrepreneurship and an easy sell for liberals interested in decreasing wealth and income inequality. Worker co-ops give their members control over their workplace but also an opportunity to build assets and share into profits. “Homeownership is the first biggest way that people build wealth in the United States, but business ownership is the second biggest way,” said Lingane of Project Equity. “What’s there not to love?” Still, banks are overwhelmingly unfamiliar with worker co-ops’ risk profile and hesitate to invest. Project Equity has been working with traditional lenders to remedy this gap in knowledge. But loans can be frightening for recipients, too.

Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton run the new streaming service Means TV as a worker co-op. The company is based in Detroit, Michigan, which has a much smaller network of co-ops than the Bay Area. To Hayes, the prospect of borrowing is unappealing. “Any sort of loan or financing is inherently extractive, or you’re paying back something that’s just not feasible for our scale.” Coming up with funding has been an uphill battle, but the duo has been relatively lucky. A campaign video they shot for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 went viral, giving them seed funding and a social media platform from which to crowdfund. The individual donations allowed Means TV to launch on February 26. Still, Hayes said, outright grants from the state would go a long way toward promoting worker co-ops.

On the day of my visit, a sunny afternoon in January, the daycare is surprisingly peaceful. It’s hard to believe 175 dogs are on-site. Some bask in a colorful playpen outdoors, while some nap inside. One wall is covered with Polaroid shots of smiling human faces. Despite the short window, the daycare team raised almost $3 million from dozens of donors, a testament to the community support for the daycare and also the wealth of its clientele. Westreich accepted the co-op’s offer and allowed it an extension on the lease. (“I loved the idea of Every Dog being able to continue and was enthusiastic about a co-operative that allowed my employees ownership,” she said.)

The team drafted temporary bylaws and filled the board with two managers, two dog handlers, and four consumers. (A ninth seat is available, but currently unfilled, for an outside consultant who can advise about worker-owned co-ops.) The daycare started operating as Dog Social Club Cooperative in July 2019 and, Wojnoonski added eagerly, with no disruption to the dogs.

While pitching the co-op, Hall and the team told potential investors that the conversion might allow the daycare to expand its services and role in the community. That day has not arrived yet, but the co-op has been profitable. Upon learning about Westreich’s initial plans to sell, though, the co-managers gave raises to help the staff save as much as they could before the closure. So the co-op held off on raising wages right away. Summer 2020 will mark the co-op’s first fiscal year and the board members’ first chance to decide how to spend its profits. Aide said the conversion process was stressful but also brought everyone closer together. Ceilidh told me that everyone has to give a little more now. But she doesn’t mind it: She calls it “good practice.”

Lingane said she routinely sees this shift take place in people in her work through Project Equity. “We hyphenate employee-owner because you’re both,” Lingane said. “You should be thinking and acting like an owner, but within your role as an employee.”

There’s something almost subversive about the hyphenation. Where our economy presumes the supremacy of profit, the hyphen situates the worker and owners as true equals. Yet it names the employee first, as if to shout at the top of its typographic lungs that there is room to reclaim power over our labor. We can still create private workplaces where employees won’t be sacrificed for the bottom line, where it is understood that while their futures are deeply intertwined with those of owners, this does not have to spell doom for the employee. Yes, even within the confines of capitalism. Yes, even in this terrible timeline.

“We didn’t start [Means TV] to have power over other people,” Burton said. She and Hayes wanted to foster cooperation, knowing it would result in a more pleasant workplace and stronger output. Burton has found that hierarchies get in the way. Organizing as a co-op was their way to avoid the trap of what Hayes called small-business tyrants—“a toxic environment [where] you burn through people and produce shit.”

While Project Equity approaches worker co-ops in different terms, Lingane reached a similar conclusion. In the best of scenarios, the worker co-op harnesses the tension between the employee and owner to benefit both sides of the hyphen. “People respond positively to being invested in,” she said. “If all you’re looking at is optimizing the bottom line, it’s a good investment.”

As it approaches its one-year anniversary, Dog Social Club Cooperative is again facing an uncertain future. “We all thought it was going to look a lot different,” said manager Lindsey Parker.

On March 16, the Alameda County Public Health Department issued a shelter-in-place order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Non-essential businesses were ordered to shut down; workers were furloughed. Parker said the decision from the county left them little choice in the matter. After two months, the shelter-in-place was partially lifted, permitting some business activity to resume so long as safety guidelines are strictly followed. The daycare was able to reopen in late May.

Not everyone is back on-site. As they prepared to reopen the daycare, the managers asked members what hours they were available to work. Since then, a few have been scheduled to come in. Parker said the daycare ordered masks as soon as possible and has tried to be creative in sourcing cleaning supplies when they’ve been hard to come by. They’ve also implemented a drop-off process that permits members and clients to stay six feet apart as they trade dogs. A combination of federal assistance and client support helped Dog Social Club survive the shelter-in-place, but more dog-owners working from home has translated to fewer dogs on campus. A lot of question marks remain in the co-op’s future.

On Sunday, Dog Social Club held its first all-member meeting since the onset of the global pandemic. Aide, the college student, thought it went well. She said that workers and clients used it as an opportunity to ask questions, give input, and bring everyone onto the same page about the daycare’s situation and collective decisions thus far. Aide is still on furlough, but said her priorities are staying safe and ensuring that the cooperative can pay the workers that it brings back. It helps that the co-op has continued to provide her with health care benefits, she said. With classes fully online now, she hopes to eventually return full-time.

Ahead of the all-member meeting, Parker told me that she saw it as an opportunity for members to be heard. But also as a time to provide a frank look at the months ahead. “We have to tell them how many months we have of safety and what the possible pitfalls are ahead of us,” Parker said. “And we have to all navigate it together.”

It’s not a fairytale ending, but it’s one in which the workers get a say.