The Cleaning of America
Boston — You can get good help these days. It's not surprising that in these times of families with two careers, families with one career and only one parent, not to mention everyone's consuming outside and inside interests, there is, more than ever, a need for good household help. Finding a "gem" who will take care of everything can seem like a lifetime search.
If you think you've got problems, though, ask the "gem." As big as the demand for household help is these days, the hardest thing to find is still a good boss.
If the dust bunnies are proliferating geometrically and the plumbing makes periodic demands for attention, bathtub rings deepen and darken and no one makes their beds or is home to do anything about it, perhaps you need good help. Be specific about your needs, and if you don't mind, try not to tell your prospective domestic worker that she (or he) will be "part of the family" and you may get it.
"You're hiring a professional," chides Carolyn Reed, director of the National Committee on Household Employment, in a soft but firm voice that makes one wish she werem part of the family. "I tell household technicians [her title for the job she did herself for years], 'You're not looking for families. You have families of your own. You're looking for adequate pay.'"
The idea that the household worker is part of the family, is patronizing and keeps the proposition from being businesslike. The result is lower pay for the worker. "They're lucky if they can get $3.10 an hour [federal minimum wage]" says Reed.
Except for Emma Fried, who gets $20.00 an hour and capitalizes on the member-of-the family aspect. She calls herself the Surrogate Wife because her work lies in the gray area between that of a maid and that of a personal secretary. She states without any shame whatsoever that she'll do the kind of work "you'd only ask your wife to do" -- whether you have one or not. In fact, Mrs. Fried, who lives alone when her daughter is away at college, says "I could use a wife myself" because business is getting so brisk she doesn't have time for her own tidying up.
She will research real estate titles for New Yorkers about to buy cooperatives, she will "balance your checkbook and teach you how to tap dance" she says, drawing on past careers and expertise. She has laid wall-to-wall carpeting, and she has the run of several thankful households' checkbooks and credit card collections.
She doesn't do that much cleaning, not because she's too proud -- "I'm a worker," she says unequivocally -- but because most of her households already have cleaning help. The day I visited her in her primary place of work, a stunning Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking the park where she has her own office to deal with the complications of a two-career family (or three -- the husband, a businessman, is also writing a book), she was checking with the cleaning woman to make sure she had laid in enough supplies and the right kind of scouring powder for her midweek foray into the city from the country house.
This call is sandwiched in between a check on a sofa the family is having made in New Orleans and a call to the family itself, which was taking it easy in Florida that week, to promise to clean out a closet. "This is an active apartment, even thought they're not physically here all the time," she says, as she waters an Edwardian palm the size of most people's kitchens which luxuriated in the corner of the comfortable living room. This task comes after she did some calling around in search of researchers for the boss's book.
The rich are different from you and me. Their chores are more complicated. Emma Fried admits she couldn't afford to hire herself. But at least eight people can, among whom are a disabled woman with young children and a bachelor who appreciates it if Mrs. Fried can occasionally make up a big batch of spaghetti sauce besides negotiating with that wonderful little shop on Madison Avenue in the correct friendly-but-no-nonsense tone to get his favorite photographs encased in classy frames with intriguing mats.
She found just the thing, after about $17.50 worth of time, but she feels she got it right, and at a good price. Besides, "the people I work for are people whose time is much more valuable than that" she says. "They're paying for freedom, and I'm doing things I get pleasure in."
There is a certain satisfaction in getting just the right silver frame [and it looks great with the old picture, by the way] or the sight of a beautifully ordered closet, and that's what Carolyn Reed misses now that she's running the National Committee on Household Employment.
"Shuffling paper is not my cup of tea," she says, "I love planning and cooking. It gives me satisfaction. I do it very well. I'm a better manager of a household than of an office." Nonetheless, "this job needs doing and I've got the gumption."
When the Committee's previous director left to direct the Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., the job was available to someone "from the ranks."
"I thought, 'I can't do that,'" Carolyn Reed recalls, but she underestimated herself. "I can do this, too," she has discovered, "I'd just prefer not to."
She'd prefer there was no need to. But the Committee has its work cut out for it, educating employers and employees in the vast and legally mysterious field of housework. Carolyn Reed's popularity with the media has helped. When I talked with her, she had just finished doing the "Good Day" show, and has been written about in the New Republic as well as being one of the women leaders Gail Sheehy profiled (Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem were others) in a series in the New York Times. But household workers have only been covered since 1974 by the Fair Labor Practices Act. Beyond that act, which requires they be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $3.10 an hour, there isn't much consistency in their legal status from state to state or even agency to agency.
The laws concerning household work need a thorough vacuuming and sorting out, to say the least. Lynn Campbell, the Committee's assistand director, has been researching different state laws and reports, "No state is like any other. Household employment has been neglected by legislators." The information peculiar to each state is not accessible to its workers, Campbell says. She herself had a hard time finding out the worker's rights, and she is something of an expert in the crusading investigation field, having pitched in with the United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez and with Women Against Pornography.
She's encouraged by the fact that "Carolyn's caught people's attention," but says, "The real work [will go on over a] long period of time. The economic and legal problems are rooted in deep attitudes: racism, and not taking household work seriously."
The committee is concentrating on southern states this year, since conditions are particularly abysmal there. For example, in Georgia, the household worker is excluded from state minimum wage laws -- which is a good thing, considering the minimum wage in Georgia is only $1.25 an hour, less than half what a household worker should get under federal law. Sadly enough, according to Lynn Campbell, the Georgia worker might not even make $1.25. In October, there will be a conference on household work at Memphis State College in Tennessee. Tennessee was chosen, Carolyn Reed says, "because they're really underpaid there , but it's a ratified state [it has ratified the ERA, and thus groups which support the ERA will hold conventions there]."
Carolyn Reed's main goal is "to work myself out of a job." That will happen when there's someone else from the ranks of household workers to take over for her, and more important, when there is a climate of self-satisfaction in the profession.
This isn't the case now. She recently asked a group of women how many of them wanted their daughters to be household workers when they grew up. No one did. That wasn't surprising to her. What was surprising was the reason: they thought it was a dead-end job. "I would have thought it was because the pay is low and there are no benefits." She wouldn't want her daughter going into that line of work "because I'd want her to make an adequate living." But on the other hand, it's a line of work she loves. And, she maintains, it's not a dead-end job at all.
From her own experience managing taxes on one client's property, she says, she could qualify as a real estate manager, and from years of cooking, she's prepared to be a caterer. A couple of years as a household worker gives one the option of becoming a laundress, she says, though from personal preference she wouldn't wish such a fate on anyone. Carolyn Reed is able to command higher fees as a household technician because she can do minor plumbing and electrical repairs after taking a few courses. She also can keep a more knowing eye on the major ones, and notice that the plumber is installing a gasket that costs 30 cents and charging $20.00. "Just being able to be there," she calls it. When such shenanigans are going on, this makes her a valued employee, if not an artisan.
"Just being able to be there" in these hectic times, is almost a lost art, and Emma Fried, too, has discovered and perfected it. "I'm selling time and service," she says, "two commodities that are very hard to come by."
Carolyn Reed sniffs at the name "Surrogate Wife" as tarnishing the professional image she desires for household workers, and points out that Emma Fried is doing what a good household technician does for $3.10 an hour. What Emma Fried has that the household technician doesn't -- and should -- says Carolyn Reed, is "an adequate job description." Something almost as hard to come by as time and service. Carolyn Reed says the worker and employer should sit down and figure out what exactly is to be done. Emma Fried's job description came about in a more organic way.
She calls it a midlife crisis. She had brought up a daughter alone in New York City, done various jobs including being an actor, dancer, waitress, and personal secretary.
She's not a decorator, but, she says, "certain things come to me." For example, she was asked to go to the apartment of a woman related to a royal family. She looked at all the boxes and made the mistake of saying "This is a lovely apartment, when did you move in?" The woman had moved in three years before, and had never managed to unpack. Emma was able to rearrange a few pieces of furniture and give her a feeling of the possibilities of the apartment , so that they could get started settling her in. It was just a simple rearrangement, she recalls, but it made everything seem less overwhelming.
Disasters call out to her. She says she has never seen such an awful mess as the room belonging to a client's ten-year- old son and gerbils. It was filthy, disorganized, and littered with gerbil bedding. "I broke down the bunk bed, tore up the rug, and decorated the room. I talked to the ten-year-old about how he used the space and what color he liked and laid the floor," she says with satisfaction.It was worth it to the boy's mother to pay $20.00 an hour, because she was contracting for the removal of a specific unholy mess.
Emma Fried, though specific about what jobs she will do for her clients, emphasizes that that could include anything. She is against labelling. She feels that because she didn't go to college and, up until now, never specialized , she has any number of skills, the primary one an ability to march into any mess, take charge, and clean it up. Or hire someone to take care of it. That includes getting a hoist for an oil company executive's piano in a move she recently oversaw (not to mention getting the oil company to cover it in the moving expenses) and finding someone to help research her boss's book. While I watched she neatly dispatched a six-inch thick pile of invoices stapled to letters, samples, checks, torn-out ads, and plain old bills, all of which she understood and kept track of.
"First I'll take these to the post office, then I'll check on the picture frame, then I'll drop this off, and check on this bill at the greengrocer," she says, clearing her desk as she talked. "You may think I'm talking to you but I'm not. I do this all the time."
By now the desk was clear, there was a stack of envelopes to mail that would solve problems, pay bills, and raise questions in all the right places. There was a list of other details to take care of. A man had come and measured the oriental rugs for pads. The plants were watered and the couch manufacturer was hurrying up, dreading a call back later in the week. She puts on a dashing but businesslike black wool coat which goes with her tendrilly black hair. She shoulders a massive pouch full of organized bits and pieces to be dispatched and connected. A slight, dark, and booted figure, she looks like an old engraving of a trusted messenger as she darts into the elevator. And she leaves behind a gloriously ordered and peaceful apartment. All this while the members of the family were working on their tans.
Though separated by a monetary pay scale, Carolyn Reed and Emma Fried agree on the intrinsic value of household work. And they are among a very few who will speak out on its behalf. Women who go to work, leaving the household labors to someone else, are surprisingly uncomprehending of the magnitude of such efforts.
"The women's movement has gotten women back into the work force, and they depend on household workers," says Lynn Campbell, "It's ironic -- they just have a blind spot," where their replacements at home are concerned. She thinks that this is because the work of the housewives themselves was never valued -- by the housewives themselves or their families.
Emma Fried, however, calls herself "an unofficial spokeswoman for the housewife." She makes no bones about the fact that the minor miracles she brings off with such aplomb could be accomplished by any housewife. Nor does that make them any less miraculous.
"Running a home is so inherently necessary for the success of everything else ," she says. "Because of the women's movement, [housewives] feel it's demeaning. It shouldn't be. You can fulfill yourself if you really do it. But the people you're doing it for should have that attitude."
"I would bring the same kind of flavor and elan to my own life," she says without even pausing to be wistful. The flavor and elan is "where the satisfaction has been for me" in her surrogate households. "People say, 'She must enjoy it, she's getting paid.' I'm getting paid because I enjoy it. There's a difference between that and being a maid."
Her stirring address on the values of a well-tempered household is poignant when you figure that, bringing up a child alone, she has always worked and has spent more time in other people's kitchens, at other people's desks, smoothing out other people's problems than using her talents on her own behalf. She may miss the elan. But there's no reason she can't hire someone.
"A household worker needs a household worker," Carolyn Reed says, just like anyone else. She just has to ask herself "What is most important to me?" and figure out what she can afford. There's nothing shameful or idle about hiring help, she maintains.
Just figure it out, "so a lot of people can be working. You have to pick what your priorities are. You want to pay for what you don't have time to do." The problem with most people who hire household workers is that they "expect them to do everything." And with the minimum wage at $3.10 an hour, they expect them to do it all in two or three hours.
There are less people willing to do this kind of work every year, and the demand continues to escalate, says Reed.
"You could have a fabulous business. There's a woman in Kentucky who just does bathrooms." When workers themselves realize what a great need there is for their services, and have a better self-image, she says, things will turn around. They may never achieve the style -- not to mention the wages -- enjoyed by Emma Fried, but Carolyn Reed would at least like to get rid of the cleaning woman image put forth on TV sitcoms. "You know, unkempt, with a rag around her head. Unfortunately I fit in with some of it, because I'm black and fat," she says without a hint of apology.
Like Emma Fried, Carolyn Reed is a woman who has realized that what she is best at is housework, and for her as for Emma, it's not only a source of income, it's a source of pride. Now that she's running the National Committee on Household Employment, she's proud of everyone in the profession. "I was going to have Halston design us a uniform," she says thoughtfully.