What Housekeepers Won’t Tell You

housekeeperIn Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2013, there was an article by Jonnelle Marte that definitely ruffled my feathers, as I’m sure it did for other people in the cleaning industry who read it.   It was the article “10 Things… Housekeepers Won’t Tell You”.  Although the criticisms and insinuations she made may not apply as much to the commercial janitorial industry like ours, some of them do cross over.  Since I did a couple years of housekeeping while working my way through college, I can relate to many of the situations she is talking about, but in defense of housekeepers, her views are not only one sided and unfair, but they are based on very little knowledge of what it’s actually like being a housekeeper or being a company that employs them.

The article can, at this point in time, be found at this link:

For every negative example she used to describe dishonesty, misleading practices or ineptitude by housekeepers or the companies they work for, we should keep in mind that these occurrences are the exception – not the rule, and some of the industry practices are completely justifiable and necessary in order for a cleaning business to be even minimally profitable.  As with all professional services we pay for, whether it’s for doctors, dentists, family counselors, lawyers, financial advisors, contractors, cooks or whoever, sometimes we have to kiss a lot of frogs before we find our prince.  Why should housekeepers be any different? For every subpar housekeeper out there, there are dozens of good ones, and some who are quite exceptional.

The negative knee jerk response that I had to Ms. Marte’s view point was based on my sense that she was unfairly ganging up on housekeepers, and I felt that many of her statements were made in a derogatory and sarcastic manner.  Maybe she had a bone to pick after having a bad experience with someone she had employed to clean her home and who fell short of her expectations.  When there are so many corrupt, disreputable, exploitive businesses out there that truly do deserve to be raked over the coals of public opinion for their cheating ways, it seems a bit petty to me to gang up on lowly housekeepers  who rarely make a living wage, who do the kind of work that most of the population would never agree to do, and who  are frequently taken for granted by the often wealthy or highly paid individuals who employ them to clean their homes while expecting them to do immaculate work for low wages.

The first line in the article put me on the defensive immediately.  “The nitty-gritty on paying a stranger to make your home all bright and shiny.”  That first statement implying that one’s housekeeper is a “stranger” makes me wonder about the attitude and prejudice of the writer.  It implies to me that she already puts housekeepers in the inferior and lower class role of someone with suspicious character who should not be trusted – like a stranger.  If this is her attitude, it says more about her character than the character of the housekeepers she’s criticizing.

Ms. Marte made 10 statements that may seem reasonable at first glance to the inexperienced reader, but to those of us who work in the industry it is obvious that her anecdotes are articulated to support a very biased point of view.

Below are some of my reactions to the article:

Comment #1, #7 and #8

“We tidy up your closets, but good luck finding the skeletons in ours” , “We don’t always make up for our mistakes”, and “Good luck if something disappears.”

Here Ms. Marte accuses housekeepers of dishonesty because they claim to be bonded & insured when they aren’t, so buyer beware.  If it’s important to you that your housekeeper is bonded and insured then you need to see her certificate of insurance.  Anyone who says they are bonded and insured should be expected to submit proof,  but be aware that many housekeepers can’t even afford to be bonded and insured on the low wages they earn, so if you want that assurance then you should go through a cleaning service – not an individual.  Even then, dishonesty bonds only pay out when there’s a conviction.  If you really want to increase the assurance of an honest housekeeper, and one who does an adequate job, then pay her better, give her tips, and let her know that if she fulfills all of your expectations, which are clearly outlined in your contract with her, that she will receive a big fat bonus every three months.  You usually get what you pay for!  Most of the time you will get excellent service from a housekeeper if she gets good tips and has a bonus to look forward to.  Better wages go a long way to ensuring that your housekeeper will want to remain employed by you, and she will do her best to not make problems, break objects or miss her scheduled cleanings.  If you have any expensive objects that you are concerned might be broken, then perhaps you should remove those objects while the housekeeper is there or tell her to not clean them.  Anyone can have the bad luck of breaking an item that is dear to you.  If you had a friend at your house, or your boss, and he accidentally broke something special to you, would you require them to pay for it?  I don’t think so.  It’s a chance one has to take when inviting anyone into their home whether it’s friends or housekeepers.

Comment #2 &#3

“Prepare for sticker shock” and “We are more about speed than thoroughness.”

Ms. Marte points out that cleaning companies charge for a deep cleaning which can be as high as $200.00, and one should be prepared for this shock! Why would this be a shock? It should be obvious to anybody that a deep cleaning is always necessary when a new housekeeper takes charge of your home.  You can’t go in and just start a regular cleaning in a place that has accumulated buildup everywhere.  You have to get rid of the buildup first before you can then maintain and keep the home clean in an efficient and cost effective manner. Anyone who doesn’t understand this needs to do the deep cleaning themselves, and then they would realize just how time consuming, exhausting and necessary it is.  You can bet that even the $200.00 initial charge for a deep cleaning that could take 8 – 16 hours at the very least for a small house barely even begins to compensate the housekeeper for her efforts.  Once again, if you have a housekeeper who is obviously speeding through her work and leaving tasks undone, then you should leave her a check-off list each time.  If she doesn’t do all the tasks adequately then do not tip her next time, and tactfully and respectfully remind her of the tips and bonuses she will lose if she doesn’t fulfill her contract with you.  It’s that simple.  You should probably have a “three strikes you’re out” rule as well.  Why would you want a housekeeper who isn’t doing an adequate job anyway?  And if you’re being unreasonable, she has every right to dump you as a client!  It works both ways.

Comment #5 & #6

“I can work under the table, but you will be on the hook”, and “My injuries will hurt you, too.”

Anyone who tries to save a few dollars by employing a housekeeper or janitor directly rather than going through a licensed contractor should understand that they must be responsible for the payroll taxes and the worker’s injuries. That’s the law, and that is why it is probably wiser to hire housekeepers through licensed agencies or contractors so that they will cover all payroll taxes, workers’ compensation and other obligations.  In the end, should the housekeeper suffer a serious injury in your home, you will be much better off spending the extra to go through the licensed agency or contractor.

Comment #10

“It isn’t easy being green”.

The last comment Ms. Marte makes (#9 was inconsequential), is barely worth responding to, but I can’t resist.  She mentions the fact that most people responsible for making cleaning decisions , less than a quarter of them, had no guidelines to help their businesses be more sustainable and environmentally responsible.  Wow, don’t even get me started on this one!  Here goes anyway…  In my experience it should be left up to the homeowner or business owner to have a system in place that addresses sustainable and environmental practices like recycling, the use of non-toxic cleaners, and conservation.    They should be the ones to cover the cost and do the monitoring to make sure their guidelines are adhered to by their own employees and the cleaning personnel.

It is very easy to set up green cleaning and recycling guidelines, but the fact of the matter is that most clients, even now in 2013, still turn a blind eye to broader sustainable practices in the workplace. Most clients do only the bare minimum like a little recycling, but most of them still don’t pay much attention to anything else, and the lack of conservation and the amount of unnecessary trash that is still ending up in the landfill is astronomical.   It isn’t the housekeeper or janitor’s responsibility to establish guidelines for sustainability – it is the client’s responsibility, and then their employees and the cleaning people need to follow protocol or be reprimanded.

It’s easy for some newspaper columnist to criticize the general cleaning industry and housekeepers for their shortcomings and flawed business practices, especially when she knows full well that it’s unlikely that any housekeeper is going to take the time to defend herself against Ms. Marte’s distorted and unfair accusations.  There are so many other professionals at the upper end of the socio economic ladder who could stand to raise their standards of ethical conduct and business practices, so I’d like to see Ms. Marte go after them with her biased criticisms.  How about writing a scathing article about lawyers?  10 Things… Lawyers won’t tell you.”  I think it’s safe to say that she wouldn’t dare. She might get too much negative response by people who actually have some power.  In conclusion, until we take a harder look at ourselves and our own shortcomings, and I’m sure Ms. Marte has many of her own, I think it would be best to stop beating up on the little guy, or in this case the housekeeper, and clean up our own affairs first.  There, I’ve said my piece!

Staff writer, Jan Nash


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