Maids

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Are you the type who tidies up before the maid arrives? (I can relate. Not that I’m saying I have a maid.) Or are you embarrassed to admit you employ a helper at home? Or maybe you’re undeniably drowning in dirt, but don’t know where to start—or whether having a maid even works for your personality, lifestyle and worldview. If so, keep reading.

There’s no denying the word maid is loaded—with baggage emotional and societal, even historic. Especially in 2015, when many of us middle- and upper-middle-classers are striving to be evolved and egalitarian, or at least look that way. Let’s face it—or Facebook it—we’re also trying to look camera-ready.

“We treat having a housekeeper like a luxury, but for many families it’s kind of a necessity,” says Baltimore-based therapist Luna Hammond. “Everyone’s supposed to work and have kids and have houses that look like Pinterest. But it’s impossible to do everything.”

Maid is, of course, an oft-used but quite old-fashioned term for housekeeper, derived from maiden, a word first used in the 13th century to denote a young woman of virginal, unmarried status. These “clean” young women, some of them anyway, became the earliest housecleaners and ladies’ attendants. (What else to do whilst waiting around for the dude on a bright white steed?)

“Maid sounds to my ear like someone who’s expected to wear a uniform!” an anonymous homeowner in Guilford tells me. (She also admits to cleaning ahead of her cleaner.)

“Maid gives me ‘Entitled White Lady’ hives,” says a friend in San Antonio, Rachel Doyle, who has used the same independent housekeeper for eight years.

Yes, the housecleaning trade is alive and well—more robustly in the last few years—if not more elegant and politically correct in its terminology. (Until I began this article, I didn’t refrain from using maid, common speak in my native South and by my friends in Baltimore.)

“Thirty-five years ago, dual incomes became the thing,” says Debra Johnson, home cleaning expert for Merry Maids, a national corporation based in Memphis, who started as a housekeeper for the company 17 years ago. “Now it’s pretty standard [to have a cleaning person]. People are house-proud. Part of protecting that investment is having a clean and healthy home.”

Given all of the cringing around the m-word, our psychological baggage seems pretty standard, too, when we hire a cleaner.

“We do have real baggage from the ’50s and ’60s on this topic,” Hammond says. “There’s a race issue and a class issue. Then there’s: Am I spoiled? These overlap. There’s something about having a corporation come in that feels distant—and establishes a boundary. But still we want to be nurtured. And that in itself is emotional. Your house is your personal space.”

A busy co-worker of mine recently started using the newish corporate service Handy to clean her apartment.

An online company founded in New York in 2011 by two brainy 30-something buddies, Handy employs a roster of freelance staffers. My friend loved the idea of a rotating cast of (hopefully qualified) characters coming in, so she didn’t have to worry about creating a personal relationship with one maid—which she feared could lead to a sense of obligation, engage her tendency to over-tip or end up taking more time. What she got was a mixed bag.

“I found that some of the women were working for Handy temporarily while they looked for other jobs, so I got my heart broken when a few professionals I loved ended up breaking up with me,” says my colleague, noting that she’s also had a few maids come in who weren’t up to snuff. “One woman showed up acting like Crazy Eyes from ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and did a horrible job, but the company happily reimbursed me. But the next time, an amazing woman showed up. She took out the recycling, made my bed [without my asking], left a thank-you note on my pillow and even color-coordinated my magazines on the coffee table. It was so great to have someone take such special care of me. I immediately sent her a text saying she’d made a huge difference in my life.”

After I gave birth to twins last June, I felt overwhelmed and hired a housecleaner for the first time. My husband and I make an effort to clear tables and countertops so that our cleaners, Fiorela Belteton (referred by a good friend) and her revolving assistant, can work more effectively, but beyond that we don’t have time to help her much nor energy to worry. As Belteton leaves I do find myself shoving a protein bar in her hand —“You’ll need extra fuel!” I enunciate awkwardly because her first language is Spanish.

I always vowed I’d hire a self-employed housecleaner if I hired anyone. And I simply assumed that cleaners employed by a corporate agency were being exploited. Belteton, 40, an independent, hires one female employee at a time to assist her as she cleans houses in the Baltimore area. As two, they can tackle more territory in less time and earn more.

While I take comfort in knowing that Belteton will keep—and pay her assistant from—my biweekly check, without a middleman, I’m also distantly aware that I’m sacrificing any sort of insurance coverage for property damage, theft or injury by opting for an independent. I don’t care—I trust Fiorela. But for those, like my colleague, who prefer a more distant relationship with their housecleaner—plus, the guarantee of bonded employees—the mainstream corporate service option may not be as grim as I presumed on the pay-scale front.

Merry Maids, which is franchised, sends a sales rep to assess cost per household size and personal homeowner’s needs. Once the pricing is set, the service assigns a trained and vetted cleaner. Products are provided to the cleaner; eco-friendly options are available upon request. While the corporation won’t share payment details, Johnson says, “The cleaners wouldn’t come back if they didn’t enjoy it, and if it’s not meeting financial needs. At Merry Maids, we give vacation pay and holiday pay.” Certain Merry Maids employees even receive health insurance depending on the market and the given franchise, she says.

These details sound sunny—and make me think I might possibly opt for corporate someday. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, in 2013, housekeepers earned a median salary of $19,780—or roughly $9.51 per hour. The highest paid earned about $31,900, while the lowest earned less than $17,000. Too low for comfort in either case. But do any off-the-books independent cleaners fare better?

I pay Belteton $80 every two weeks for one 90-minute cleaning session, plus modest tips at holidays. She cleans the bathroom and kitchen thoroughly and vacuums every room of our two-bedroom rowhouse. (One week, I asked her rather apologetically to wipe off the microwave, and she has added the service.) Anything beyond these basics will cost extra. She brings her own products about which I’ve never inquired. She must make pretty good money provided she stays busy with houses, but I have wondered about her helper’s earnings. Belteton told me that she pays her assistant $400-$500 weekly, a sum that she grants would be somewhat tough to live on. (Not as low as Moppin’ Mommas, a well-respected small local cleaning company started in Baltimore in 1990, which pays cleaners between $60 and $80 daily, according to co-owner Raylene Wase.) When I did the math, I saw that Belteton, if she can book a full-time load, is earning about double her assistant’s wage, or $1,000 weekly. Not exorbitant by any stretch—but livable, lots better than 30K, the high reported figure from the BLS. If only her hire fared more happily in this equation.

“The Maids [another national franchise group] are paid hourly—no nights; no weekends,” says Wayne Phillips, a Baltimore-based franchise owner since 2002, when I ask about the appeal of a maid career at this point in time. “The alternative could be restaurants and retail—but most of our employees are family people.” He says that each franchisee follows a pricing/payment system handed down from corporate, but on average the typical Baltimore housecleaning costs $157 per session—the highest tag I’ve come across. The Omaha-based company was founded in 1979, the same year as Merry Maids. (If the slightly pricier rate didn’t stop me, Phillips’ strict reluctance to disclose his own franchise’s workers’ wages might prevent me from using this service myself.)

Handy pays its cleaners between $15 and $17 hourly, and they were perfectly comfortable telling me so. While all workers are freelance—and submit a 1099, earning no outside benefits—the flexi-bility is there. So is an earning potential greater than others. Maybe you’ve spied Handy on Facebook, where they’ve recently offered a $29 first-time cleaning offer. After that, the rate climbs, but most cleanings cost between $55 and $70 on average. Handy wants to be a cleaning service for a newish millennium—like Uber for cleaning, as they themselves note. They also employ men and women cleaners, as do all the other corporate services I spoke to. (I’m guessing no men work for Topless Maids—maybe you’ve spotted their highly “visual” vans downtown recently?—but I didn’t call to ask.)

Buffy Buchanan, 25, who has a 4-year-old daughter, became a freelance cleaner for Handy after working in Baltimore as an independent maid. She works a second job at a bakery part-time and appreciates that Handy will assign her work whenever she’s free to take it. (Clients book online, pay online and request repeat service or different maids online as well. Handy’s “professionals”—that’s what they call them—also are background -checked online, then interviewed and given a corporate orientation all via telephone.)

“The more houses you do, it goes up,” Buchanan says. “Every 28 days, they rate you. After the first 10 houses, if you get a good rating, you go into another bracket. If you clean 25 houses in 28 days, you can go up to $22 an hour.” (Buchanan is expected to buy her own cleaning products after Handy provides her first-time kit.) Twenty-two an hour isn’t too shabby. But Buchanan, who says she’s enjoyed cleaning since childhood, finds that her clients do sometimes strike her as feeling guilty.

“I went into a customer’s home, for example, and when I was cleaning, he was cleaning. Some people just feel bad. It’s not a burden for me. It’s like going to the doctor—look at me as a service.”

Brian Pelisek, 51, who has employed various cleaners from White Marsh-based Total Maid Services for nine years, says he has never felt guilty for having someone come in to clean his 900-square-foot house (he pays $65 per visit, the lowest rate I’ve come across). Nor does he clean ahead of the appointment.

“They wipe down every surface, cabinets, countertops, furniture and shelves,” Pelisek says. “They clean the microwave, sinks, toilets and bathtub. They vacuum and scrub bare floors by hand. They clean ceiling fans and change bed linens. Usually it’s the same three or four people. There’s no interaction beyond cleaning.”

Many more of us don’t find the experience so, well, emotionally neat.

“I think it had been instilled in me by my parents that you don’t hire someone to do something that you can do,” says Steven Hanna, 40, a Los Angelino who rehired his former Merry Maid, Ana, on an independent basis after the local franchise shuttered. He pays $160 per single monthly visit. (He admits to straightening his “slob” space before Ana arrives, which he calls an extra advantage.)

Maybe the ongoing emotionality is the price we’ll always have to pay—in addition to the hourly rate—for getting ourselves spic and span. On my end, if I arm myself nerdily with data on fair wages—and stick around for the appointment and express my gratitude—I’m more OK with the process. If my current pro Belteton ever finds greener (if not cleaner) pastures, I’d feel perfectly good about trying my luck with Handy now that I know their competitive hourly pay rates. I like the idea that I can book a maid (shiver) at a moment’s notice and change employees with the click of a button (and no awkward apology). But I’d probably still insist the new hire take a protein bar on her way out.

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