“Clients are the nicest they’ve ever been—I’m getting $100 tips”: Four house cleaners describe what it’s like to go back to work during the pandemic
After two months of lockdown, Doug Ford recently announced that Ontario would enter Stage 1 of reopening, allowing certain people, such as house cleaners, to resume work. Toronto Life spoke with four professional cleaners about how protocols have changed since the pandemic began and what it’s like to go back to work in the middle of a public health crisis.
Patrice James, Done By Us Cleaning
“Three years ago, I posted in Bunz Helping Zone, offering people an hour of my time for free with anything they needed done. I helped people with moving, babysitting and cleaning house. Eventually, enough people wanted to hire me for cleaning services that it became my business, which I called Done By Us Cleaning.
“When Covid hit, my business plummeted right away. Normally I would have four or five appointments a day, six days a week. That dropped down to one appointment a week. I started getting notifications that my clients were deleting their appointments from our shared calendar. In the first week of quarantine, I had 15 cancellation notifications. I’m actually glad Covid gave me that break, because otherwise I would be working nonstop. I’ve used the spare time to bring more of my business online. I’m now offering consulting services through FaceTime or Skype, where I help people declutter or organize their space, and I’ve created a number of audio tracks talking my way through cleaning a specific part of the house, so people can purchase those and listen to them for guidance while they clean their own homes.
“I’ve been excited to get back to work, and now that I’m allowed back inside people’s homes, I’m taking extra safety precautions. I bring a change of clothes for each appointment, and I wear gloves and two face masks–one surgical and one made from fabric. As soon as I walk into someone’s home, I wipe the front and back of the door and the light switch with Lysol. I also put my backpack in a plastic bag to keep it away from the surfaces I’m about to clean. I lost a lot of income during Covid, which put a damper on my plans to move out of my parents’ house. I’m bummed my plans have been sidelined, but that’s happening to a lot of people in the city. I’m just happy that I can still go to work.”
Josie Darvenis, Grime-Stoppers Cleaning Company
“My mother, Lena, is from the Philippines and did nannying and house-cleaning before coming to Canada 35 years ago. For the past 15 years, she continued to clean houses part-time while working day jobs in offices or factories. Last June, she decided she wanted to make cleaning her full-time gig, so we went into business together. After two months, we were doing pretty well, with seven regular clients—one commercial and six residential. I decided to make things official: I registered and insured the business and instituted policies to protect workers and clients. We officially launched last December. We have six cleaners working for us. My mom is the supervising cleaner, and I run the business side of things.
“Covid-19 caused a huge loss of income for both the company and the cleaners who work for us. We were pretty much down to zero. But it did help us accelerate some business models, like marketing our VIP cleaning service package, which gives clients pre-scheduled two- to three-hour cleans at least twice per month; it starts at $285 a month for residential clients and $800 a month for commercial clients. I did a lot of planning and thinking about how we would run the business once restrictions lifted. Now that we’re back to work, we’ve instituted a policy that supplies can’t be reuse at different homes to avoid cross-contamination, and we’re screening both workers and clients 24 to 48 hours before a scheduled clean to ensure that no one is experiencing any symptoms.
“For now, our cleaners are only going into one house per day. They don’t feel safe going into multiple homes a day, nor do the clients want someone who’s been going between different residences. Everyone feels safer when there’s a longer period of time between cleans. Right now we’ve only had three of our regular clients return—mostly older folks who need help—so we’re operating at less than 50 per cent of our total capacity. I do not see families who have young children coming back to us right away.
“Now when we clean someone’s home, we follow strict social distancing protocols. Say a client lives in a small condo with no balcony. We’ll ask the client to stay in their bedroom while we are cleaning the rest of the house, then we’ll wait outside the unit and give them a call letting them know they can move to another room so we can clean the bedroom. We have to figure out on a client-to-client basis the best way to maneuver around the home. Those who have a backyard can just go sit outside until we’re done, and we’ll wave through the window. And we’re always wearing masks and gloves. We ask clients to store PPE in their homes so we don’t have to bring it from house to house. As restrictions continue to lift in Ontario, I think there will be a greater demand for our services, and I think we’ll be busier than before. When that happens we need to figure out how to expand our base of cleaners and continue to grow the business.”
Sabrina Ibarra, AspenClean
“I used to work as an events co-ordinator in Mexico City. Then, a year ago, I moved to Toronto with my husband, who is studying international business at Seneca College, and our two kids; he got a job at Seneca and I started working for AspenClean. When I first heard about Covid-19, I was concerned. The news reports were scary and nothing was clear. As a cleaner I have to go inside people’s homes, and I wasn’t sure if it was safe or not. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t. During my time off from cleaning, I worked as an Uber driver and delivered Uber Eats—I wanted to make my own money, and I don’t like taking handouts from the government.
“Now that we’re back at work, we’ve changed our protocols to keep safe: we used to work in teams of four, and now it’s teams of two or three for proper distancing. Of course, because the teams are smaller, it takes longer to finish a clean—a job that would have taken a team of three people two and a half hours, now takes an extra hour for a team of two (we get paid for the extra time). We have to wear masks and face shields all the time; we wear gloves, too, and wash our hands between tasks. Before work, everyone on the team has to take his or her temperature so company can ensure we’re not showing signs of Covid.
“We have to use social distancing while we clean the homes. When we arrive, I designate tasks for each team member: for example, one person will clean the kitchen and another will do the bathroom so we can all stay safely distanced. Details are really important for our clients. We scrub, we sweep, we vacuum, we clean the windows. If there is dust on the walls, we will wash them. I am a little nervous going into new clients’ houses because sometimes they are very, very messy. But we have mainly been cleaning empty houses—there have been a lot of people moving, maybe it’s the season.
“I am very happy to have a job. But I’m a mom, and I want my kids to stay safe. When I come home from work, I have to take off my cleaning clothes before I go in the house. My son is excited and says, “Mommy, welcome home!” I have to tell him to stay away while I change and sanitize everything. These are complicated times. I have been happy to see some of my old clients—a lot of them are really kind leave good tips. But the tips aren’t important. I can see on their faces that they are happy to see me again. It reminds me to be grateful for what I have.”
Jair Aguirre, Maids4Condos
“I came to Canada from Mexico seven months ago to study business administration at the Toronto School of Management, and I started working as a cleaner at Maid4Condos within the first month I arrived. The day before my birthday, March 17, I noticed that clients seemed more scared of us arriving into their homes, keeping their distance. A few days later, we had to stop cleaning because of the government order. The company let everyone know they were doing layoffs so we could apply for government benefits. I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to afford to stay here. But then I applied for the CERB, and things were okay.
“When it looked like we might be able to go back to work, the company reached out and had us participate in a special Zoom training session about new health and safety protocols. The training taught us to pay more attention to cleaning high volume points, or the places in the house people touch a lot, like door knobs, light switches, faucets. The training also taught us how to properly clean our equipment, like our mops, and sanitizing everything as we go from house to house.
“I clean two or three homes per day. My colleagues and I were afraid of getting on the TTC to travel to work, but the training taught us which PPE to wear on public transit, and the company also provided us with masks, gloves and goggles to wear both on the TTC and when we’re inside people’s homes. One of my fears going back to work was, “What if I don’t know that the client is sick or the house is full of germs?” But the company made it clear that if we arrive at a client’s home and they’re presenting symptoms, we’re allowed to leave.
“It was surprising for me to go back to work and have just as many clients as before. I thought there would be less work but it’s been pretty much the same. Clients are the nicest they’ve ever been. They are very thankful for our work, and sometimes they even leave a very big tip—normally they give us $20 to 30, but now they’re leaving $80 or $100 tips. I do not think I am putting my health at risk by going back to work so soon. I am taking all the precautions I can, and now that I have been back for a couple weeks, I am starting to have more confidence. Not just at work but when I go out and buy groceries too. I think that’s something all humans have—we are adaptable.”