A Housecleaner's Lament: No Respect

By most measures, Louise Rafkin is overeducated for the work she does. With a master's degree in comparative literature, she could have chosen a career in teaching or academic research. Instead, she proudly pursues a different job: housecleaning.

Ever since she earned the award of Home Ec Student of the Year in junior high, Ms. Rafkin has known the satisfaction of polished silver, streakless windows, and smoothly made beds. So eight years ago, when she needed a way to support her primary interest - writing - she pinned a flier on the bulletin board at the A&P supermarket reading: "Cleaning. Responsible. Local references. Fast."

Housecleaner is not the kind of job title designed to fill a parent with pride after all those years of college tuition: My daughter the cleaning lady. Yet Rafkin herself, armed with vacuums and rags and a bountiful supply of elbow grease, takes pleasure in banishing dust bunnies and cobwebs and turning clients' chaos into pristine order.

At the same time, she continues to polish her literary talent. Her book, "Other People's Dirt: a Housecleaner's Curious Adventures," details her experiences as a largely invisible, underappreciated member of the mop-and-broom brigade.

Like menial workers everywhere, Rafkin can identify with Rodney Dangerfield's "I-don't-get-no- respect" lament. She has been fired for leaving two Cheerios in an otherwise spotless sink. She has been talked down $5 on the price she quoted the owner of a million-dollar summer house. She has been paid in loose change.

But even these indignities fail to dampen Rafkin's enthusiasm for her chosen occupation. After moving to another coast, she had not cleaned in several months. "I missed it," she writes. "I missed polishing bathroom mirrors. I missed wiping kitchen counters. I missed spying into other people's refrigerators."

Rafkin is hardly alone in the satisfaction she finds in her day job. In a new study of "dirty work," two business professors at Arizona State University, Blake Ashford and Glen Kreiner, find that many workers performing "stigmatized" jobs refuse to be upset by the negative views of others.

Their report, "How Can You Do It? Dirty Work and the Dilemma of Identity," includes workers in such low-status jobs as hospital orderlies, garbage collectors, bail bondsmen, and gravediggers.

"They find merit in their work and take pride in doing a good job or providing a service, and to heck with everyone else," Professor Ashford told colleagues attending the Academy of Management's annual meeting in San Diego last week.

Too often such work becomes appreciated only when it is not done. There is nothing like a garbage-collectors' strike in New York to illustrate the essential nature of menial tasks.

Yet as the ranks of service-providers grow, a curious irony exists. In a white-collar world increasingly obsessed with lofty titles and even loftier paychecks, the pink-collar, blue-collar, and no-collar workers who keep cities and offices and homes functioning find themselves relegated to ever-lower rungs on the career ladder.

Lamenting this status, Rafkin observes, "People will trust nameless faces as long as they know their place." As she herself might suggest, those who are served could well afford to polish their respect for those who put a shine on everything else.

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