Fair-Wage Housecleaning
Finding value in women’s work

An acquaintance of mine, Rebecca (not her real name), agreed to take me with her on a day of cleaning. I was curious how housecleaners were faring in this economy, and I wanted to get some perspective on how it feels to get paid for something most people don’t consider “real work.” Her gig was at a recently vacated apartment in Oakland. While Rebecca perched on a ladder and scrubbed six years of grease off the kitchen ceiling, we chatted about money.

Rebecca started the business six years ago, with a friend. “Me and my friend were both getting fat and we were like, ‘what will make us money and get exercise?'” Rebecca said, then adds with a laugh: “It was either housecleaning or prostitution.”

For a mother of two teenaged daughters, Rebecca is remarkably youthful. She has dyed blonde hair which she pulls up in pigtails; her wide brown eyes make her look a like a manga character. Even when cleaning, Rebecca wears a belt with spiked metal.

Unlike many housecleaners, Rebecca is white and college-educated; she is a Gulf War vet and a member of Mensa. She doesn’t feel oppressed by her position as a housecleaner. In fact, she feels empowered by her profession. “I think it’s a feminist statement, reclaiming something that is considered s- work, women’s work,” Rebecca said. Traditional housecleaning – anonymous work typically done by immigrants – is not Rebecca’s business. Instead, she considers herself an equal with her clients – and charges $30 an hour.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, there are 915,890 maids in America, and their average rate is $9.40 an hour; some make as little as $6.73 an hour. San Francisco is one of the five best-paying metropolitan areas for maids, with an average rate of $12.86 per hour. (The others are New York City; Nassau-Suffolk, NY; Fairbanks, AK; and Honolulu, Hawaii.) Rebecca makes more than twice as much as that. She says she can charge more because she’s found a niche.

“My typical client is a liberal, working professional,” Rebecca said. “They usually have an Al Franken book on the shelf, they shop at Trader Joe’s and have a KQED guide on their coffee table.” These people, most of whom Rebecca has found through Craigslist and Berkeley Parents Network, are willing to pay more for housecleaning service, often to assuage their guilt about having to hire a housecleaner.

Janet (not her real name) is one of Rebecca’s clients who fits this profile to a T. “I consider myself liberal,” Janet said in a phone interview. “We’re obviously middle class. My husband grew up with nannies and housekeepers, so he’s been wanting to do this for a long time.”

“This” is hiring Rebecca to come in every other week and clean for three hours. Rebecca cleans the kitchen and bathroom, mops the floors, and takes out the trash. The couple first found Rebecca through a listserv and were impressed with her references. Though a maid service might have been cheaper, Janet noted that those companies take a large cut of the cleaners’ wages: “I’m interested in paying a fair wage and supporting small businesses.” Janet said that it’s a relief to have a sparkling clean house after Rebecca leaves.

Paying Rebecca $90 so that Janet and her husband can spend three extra hours with their new baby is well worth it for Janet. “I want her to make the same rate as what my time is worth,” said Janet, who worked as a middle school teacher before she went on maternity leave.

Janet admitted that at first she did feel ambivalent about hiring a housecleaner. Sociologist and author Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo noted in her research of housecleaners in Los Angeles that American employers almost always have feelings of ambivalence and guilt about “having” to hire a maid.

“Contemporary inequalities notwithstanding, Americans have no titled aristocracy and no feudal past,” Hondagneu-Sotelo writes in Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, “and the omnipresent ideology of freedom, equality, and democracy clashes with what many American employers of domestic workers experience in their lives.”

In her research, Hondagneu-Sotelo found that employers devote little time discussing their housecleaner among friends. “Some women, especially those holding liberal or progressive views, seemed too embarrassed or ashamed to discuss the topic,” Hondagneu-Sotelo writes.

Janet agreed that she would never discuss her housecleaner with her friends.

“It was kind of an adjustment for me. It felt a little weird,” Janet said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have a housecleaner like Rebecca. I could communicate with her and be clear that if I made some kind of unreasonable demand, she would let me know and charge me more for that.”

Some of the ambivalence in America probably stems from class, gender and racial inequities. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, domestic work was the single largest category of paid employment for all women in the United States. As more women moved on to higher-paying jobs, these women in turn hired women with fewer skills to clean their houses, which sets up the current face of most housecleaners: low-income, uneducated and often immigrant. So that is why when Rebecca enters the scene – white, educated, well-paid – the paradigm shifts. “When I hired Rebecca,” Janet said, “my ambivalence disappeared.”

When I mentioned this to Rebecca later, she chuckled. “I sometimes call myself a cheap therapist who makes house calls,” she said. “I explain to them that cleaning is work, it’s a job, and I’m there to do it for them. It’s kind of like when your computer breaks: You could spend hours with a manual trying to fix it, or you call someone in to fix it for you. That’s what I do with cleaning.”

Part of the guilt may have to do with gender. Hondagneu-Sotelo notes, “Unlike factories or offices, the home serves as a site of family and leisure activities, seen as by their nature antithetical to work. � The work of wives and mothers is not seen as real work.”

I notice that I tend to feel the same way – when I clean my house, I don’t think of it as work, much the same way I don’t see it as work to brush my teeth. However, a day of cleaning with Rebecca convinced me: My muscles were aching after only a few hours of helping her scrub. It made me reconsider how my time spent cleaning is valued. Should I charge my boyfriend an hourly rate when I scrub our bathroom? Or should I hire Rebecca, and then have him pay her instead? The idea had appeal.

Rebecca is always hired by the woman of the house, and when she is let go, most often it is done by the man of the house. In one case, the wife of a local celebrity hired Rebecca; she cleaned their 10-bedroom house for 10 hours and charged $300. The husband, a man who made over a million dollars that year (Rebecca happened to see his tax forms on the table), called to tell her she charged too much and she was effectively fired. No skin off Rebecca’s nose, and not a surprise for her either. “It’s the women who hire me, and the men who fire me.” Rebecca shrugged from her ladder. “Because they don’t value this work. The men don’t see it as work.”

That is one reason why Rebecca demands $30 an hour. She once was hired by someone who convinced her to work for four hours a week but only charge her for three. “I agreed to it because I wanted to give the lady a break,” Rebecca said. But after a while, she felt like her work as a woman was being undervalued. “I started to resent it. And every time I had to go to that house I would become depressed and angry. So I stopped cleaning her house.”

In a crumbling economy, I asked Rebecca if she was worried about losing clients. She just lost a client who got laid off and she’s worried about another client who works for AIG and might lose her job as well. But many of her 20-plus clients tell her she’s a luxury that has to stay.

“I keep the kitchen clean so they can cook at home and save money by not going out to eat,” Rebecca said. “Also, having a clean house reduces tensions in a time where tensions tend to run high.” But even as Rebecca loses clients, she knows that she can find others. “What are there, 7 million people in the Bay Area? I think I can find 20 people who will pay me a fair wage. First you have to value your work – then you’ll find others who value it, too.”

By Novella Carpenter, Special to SF Gate
Monday, December 8, 2008
A citizen of Oakland, Novella Carpenter reports on food, farming and culture. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Salon.com, Edible San Francisco and other publications. Her memoir about urban farming is forthcoming from Penguin Press. She keeps a blog about city farming at www.novellacarpenter.com