19 March 2010

House Cleaner Mafia?

(Photograph copyright 2010, all rights reserved.)

I guess hindsight is not 20/20. Ok. That's a bad pun, but it fits with the picture AND the situation that my best friend, Mother of the Cool Niece (henceforth to be known as MOCN) called me about on her lunch hour today. I need to give you background, first.

About four years ago, while MOCN was still living across the courtyard from me, she was raving about her cleaning lady. " A goddess", she said, "and she doesn't charge the earth, either!"

So I hired this Cleaning Goddess (henceforth to be known as CG) and, you got it, she was a tornado in the house. The place literally sparkled when she got through with it. Every corner, every crevice, every spot where dirt might accumulate glistened after four hours of her time. She cleaned the TOPS of the shower heads. She vacuumed the baseboards BEHIND the heavy furniture. She dusted the doors, the door frames, the blinds (all we have are wood blinds) and the window frames. In four hours, she could do what I couldn't manage in three days.

The house was so clean it made me slightly nervous. Really, who vacuums baseboards that you can't even see more than twice a YEAR, let alone twice a month? No one I know, because life is just too short to move furniture all the time, right? All this and she adored the cats, too! Plus, she was NICE. A sweet young woman from Poland with permanent resident status, a husband who drove truck (at the time, anyway) and a thoroughly engaging and pleasant person.

MOCN and I recommended her to several people. At one point, she was working for another three or four people in this townhouse complex and everyone agreed that she was a great cleaner with a sterling character who never, ever broke anything. Ever. She came, she cleaned, she got paid, she moved on. Two to three houses a day, five days a week. She made good money. This was a busy lady, as you can understand. Anyone who does work that good can write their own ticket in this town.

Alas, as always seems to happen with young married women.... the CG got pregnant. Sigh. She worked until her fifth month, but had to quit because she just couldn't manage the lifting any more. She recommended a friend, I told her that she was welcome to come back whenever she was ready and that was the end of it. I didn't go to the shower, but I did order a car seat off her registry. This was last spring. By my reckoning, she's had about ten or eleven months off by now.

I ended up firing the lady that was recommended because she just wasn't doing a good enough job. For the same money that the CG was charging, the new lady made the house look like, well, like I did it myself. It just wasn't worth it to have her come in twice a month to do what I do every week, right? Again, I thought nothing of it and resigned myself to doing my own dusting and toilet scrubbing and waiting for the CG to come back to work.

So. We come to today. MOCN called me on her lunch hour with her ethical dilemma. The CG's recommendation for MOCN's house worked out extremely well. Almost as good as the CG herself, so MOCN kept her and paid her exactly what she'd been paying before.

MOCN doesn't generally manage to get home during the day. Even though her office is walking distance from her house, her job has her driving all over the city most of the time, so when it's cleaning day, she leaves the cash for the cleaner on the kitchen counter and comes home to a clean house. It works well for her. Today, though, MOCN had to go home for a few minutes to pick something up and the current cleaning lady was just finishing. They chatted and MOCN found out that the CG not only has no intention of coming back to work, she was taking a THIRD of the wages away from MOCN's cleaner and all of the other ladies that she'd recommended when she went on "maternity leave". The poor girl was terrified and BEGGED MOCN not to tell the CG what had been going on.

It seems that the "sweet, lovely" CG was taking a third of the wages of ALL of the women that she said were "substituting" for her while she was on maternity leave! For almost a full year! How's that for a sweet deal? I suspect that she's making at least what she was making before, because her substitutes have to have found other clients on their own during that time and CG is taking a third of THAT money, too! MOCN was furious. Hopping mad. So mad that she fired the cleaner on the spot.

So, you must know what the dilemma is by now. What should MOCN do? The cleaner she fired didn't do anything wrong, and she needs the income from her cleaning jobs, including MOCNs. Then again, like MOCN told me this afternoon, she's damned if she's paying some racketeering, lazy-assed, slimeball for work that she's not doing! Now, I know some of you are thinking this already - it's not fair to the current cleaner, right? Why should she be victimized twice? First she's being extorted, then she gets fired. Hardly fair. If I could get the girl to go along with it, I would call the CG and tell her the girl was fired. Then I would let the cleaner know that she was off the hook with the CG and she could just keep cleaning my house and keeping the money.

It would be tempting to do it that way, but I don't think I'd go for it right away. The burning question in my mind is, "Why is that girl so scared that the CG will find out that her nasty little secret is out?"


  1. So you gonna make her an offer she can't refuse?

    What a icky little shitstorm this is, buy you're on target with your advice. CG pulled a fairly typical stunt, actually - cottage industry, single-person entrepreneurship is a small, incestuous lot, and people amid a flooded market sell their place in line as a normal business deal. The midwife who sat with my while I delivered my son went through it, we found out later, after she was referred by another midwife we opted out of.

    Scared, though? Hmm. CG could be pretty nasty, I reckon, or family could be involved, or La Cleaning Lady Nostra...but I think maybe not.

    Maybe a call to the recommended cleaning lady with a few simple questions is in order, to make sure she's safe, if she's willing to talk. If so, implement your plan. If not, better off away from that baggage anyway, sad to say.

  2. If it were just me being affected, I would call the CG, rip a strip off her and threaten to call the police. Or immigration, given that the women she's ripping off are also from Poland. THAT might have some impact on her.

    It's not just me, though, is it? MOCN said the girl she talked to was terrified, and MOCN knows terrified when she sees it. I can't put any of these ladies at risk, especially since I don't know exactly what's going on.

    Physical threats? Over vacuuming rights? I've seen weirder things, I guess.

  3. I'd call the new one, tell her that she meant it when she fired her. However, she'd be more than happy to hire her again, on her own merits and not on the recommendation of the friend. That is, that all the wages are to go to her alone.

    The previous one needs to open a cleaning service, and manage the cleaners from an office, even in her home. The she'd actually be earning her money, might even get more help, and the help would be paying taxes and FICA.

  4. Oh Messy! What a bad situation.

    Maybe the husband is a bad apple too. Maybe they really WILL hurt these women.

    I wonder if there is some kind of social agency with expertise in helping foreign workers. It seems like part of this is cultural, the part that seems so darn CRAZY to us.

    I am going to look into it at school on Monday. We have a "Women's Center" with social workers who know all kinds of things about helping these kinds of women. Although I am out of state, the type of agency would be the same, and then you'd know what kind of place to look for to go for help (if you decide you'd like to help, that is).

  5. Keep the CG and enjoy a clean house while you find out more about her entering the US? Maybe you have uncovered a slave trade operation? All that cash flowing and no paperwork trail of any kind? Hmmm? Raises a lot of questions?

  6. I'm afraid that I don't understand? I mean, if there were women out of work and CG set them up with jobs and many of them worked out, they're getting paid and CG is getting paid. Seems it's a win-win for everyone (except if you got the bad draw of the not-so-good cleaning lady recommended). But, I mean, if the MOCN's new lady was working out and doing just as good a job as the CG, why not keep paying her? Hell, why not give a slight raise for inflation? Why don't you hire the new cleaning lady working MOCN, too, Messy? Who cares what she does with her money after she leaves the house? So, she has a boss? I mean, it's not like she's a prostitute being pimped, physically beaten into selling her body?

    Seems to me that MOCN was out of line to fire the lady? What am I missing? As for why the new girl is scared, I think it's because she doesn't want the CG to start working again and take ALL of the money. :-(

  7. I mean, if CG is taking 1/3 of the wages, you've already said that CG did QUITE WELL monetarily during her time. So these other ladies are still doing quite well, too, yes? Especially when compared to no work?! I mean, scared? Hell yeah, she's scared. Probably has mouths to feed. :-( I'm afraid that firing anyone who's working and doing a great job makes no sense to me. Matter of fact, it makes the opposite of good sense to me? It's tough out there and I just don't see the conspiracy here? :-(

  8. Smag, MOCN and I talked about that, and we agreed that a finder's fee would not be out of order. Say a couple of hundred at the beginning of the gig for the referral. That makes sense to me. After all, these things are almost 100% word of mouth, so sure, I can see that. It's only fair.

    However, sitting on her ass and taking a full THIRD of their money forever? Nope. Sorry. Not acceptable. What the hell is she? Some kind of pimp? Cleaning other peoples' houses is damned hard work, and these ladies bloody well earn every penny. I'm not going to subsidize the CG if she's not out there herself.

    CoolOne - I'll recommend that to MOCN. It's what I'd do. But there are some things that make me nervous about that. This girl was scared out of proportion to what would be reasonable. She was terrified, but not the kind of scared you'd expect if it was just about being fired. After all, good cleaning ladies in Chicago are a hot commodity.

    But the CG go legit? Pay taxes? Are you kidding? I doubt very much she'd want to go there, and I have no idea if there's someone behind her scam that really is scary.

    Bella - any advice you have is welcome. As far as I can tell, all of these ladies are legal. The CG has a Green Card, she showed it to me, and so did the substitute she sent me. I have no idea about the MOCN's cleaning lady.

    I wish I knew what the real situation is. I do know that at the very least, it's incredibly offensive. It's hard to tell what's REALLY going on, because I don't have an interpreter handy and no one has a really great command of English.

    (The Boy, by the way is partly of Ukranian heritage, my mother's family is as well, and my father's family is Russian. We agree that East Europeans, particularly those who are new to North America, have some....interesting ways of viewing things. Just sayin'.)

  9. Sorry Smag, I missed your second post. MOCN's cleaning lady only got scared when MOCN mentioned talking to the CG about it. See, I think the scam is that these substitutes (if they're any good) have gotten work over and above the original referrals. This means that the CG is taking money both on the houses she used to clean herself, but everything else these "friends" of hers have gained over the past while.

    Besides, MOCN's cleaning lady said she was afraid to tell BEFORE she revealed what was going on. MOCN wormed it out of her afterward.

    Something fishy, for sure.

  10. Well, yeah, but Messy you and MOCN aren't paying CG! You're paying new lady. And if she does good work, firing her for what she does with what you pay her isn't fair to her at all. And there's no way to know if CG is getting a cut of new houses or not. Unless that was specifically talked about by MOCN and new cleaning lady. Oh well.

  11. See? A conundrum. I'd hire the new lady myself, but not if she's kicking back a third of her wages to that lazy jerk! She earns that money, ALL OF IT and she deserves to keep it.

  12. Hey Messy, my apologies if I indicated any conundrum in my last post. That was not my intention. My point was that I would rather pay someone something for their services than fire them. What they do with the money they've been paid after I pay them is none of my business.

  13. I know. And MOCN is in a bind, too. Working full time and an almost-three-year-old daughter is enough without having to spend the evenings (and she keeps on working when she gets home) cleaning the house. Add to that that I doubt very much that anyone ever went to their grave wishing they'd vacuumed more often and that's a big old mess.

    My temptation would be to tip the kid copiously and make sure she knows it's a TIP and not subject to kickbacks to the CG.

  14. Ah the joy and pitfalls of capitalism!

    What are the rates for hiring a cleaning outfit such as "Maid-are-us, or similar? The cleaners are probably paid minimum wages and I'm pretty sure the fees paid by the customers are way way more than a mere 1/3 over that and over whatever office and ad expenses there are.

    Have you read Barbara Ehenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed"? The chapter on the cleaning outfits is mind boggling.... makes you want to brush up on your Karl Marx (exploitation of labor, etc --remember Karl said he wasn't a Marxist so you can't blame him for how some of his work was turned into an ideology, i.e. basically a pack of lies as Marx defined ideology!), and also never hire one of those outfits (the instructions to the staff included to never use more than one half of a bucket of water to clean kitchen floors, no matter how big the kitchen --gross! --and another thing I remember were instructions to always mop floors on your hands and knees because that would please the customers, etc etc)

    So there you are, your cleaning lady became an entrepreneur. The fear though might have to do with immigration status or simply because the cleaners signed a contract preventing them from taking work they found on their own and they weren't sure what exactly they signed?

  15. I have to do some investigating, but I'm not sure how to go about it, given that I fired my substitute cleaner. I'll have to talk to MOCN again.

    I haven't read "Nickel and Dimed". I sounds interesting. Something for the Kindle, I think. (Crap! Just checked. It's not on Kindle yet.) It sounds like an update on "Condition of the Working Class in England", which I think should be required reading for 12th Grade kids. *evil grin*

    I know, I know. I was one harsh teacher.

  16. Adding to Kati's post, a sports agent is much the same thing. Someone who finds work for a client (player), and then takes in huge portions of the client's (player's) income when it's the player who's providing the valuable commodity (talent). The sports team pays the player only, not the agent. The sports team is only interested in what the player can do for them and only enters into the agreement with the player. The player, by choice, uses an agent or not, but, if the player chooses to use the agent, the agent gets paid from the player's wage. I don't see this situation as particularly different.

  17. I feel for you Messy, and don't have a lot to add to the thoughtful points above.
    I will kick in that I worked as a white-collar temp and made about $8 an hour. I was billed out at $20-25.

  18. There's your answer then. If the original lady wants to essentially pimp these women our as cleaning ladies, collecting an exorbitant fee forever, then she's not paying her share of taxes, is she?

    Did you know that the IRS often pays a finder's fee to people turning in tax cheats?

  19. Hmmmm, very interesting conversation...what to do, what to do?

    I shall be interested Auntie Messy in hearing what conclusion you come to and how you decide to handle it.

    I'm with you though in the simple fact that the CG was scared that you would tell her boss. Does that one fact not lead us to believe the CG was highly impressed upon that this knowledge was highly valued and would put some crimp in the works should she tell? Coercion?

    I also get Smaggie's Agent thinking as well, but don't those player's without English language skills have an interpreter so they are not entering into a deal where they are somehow being taken advantage of?

    Something stinks besides the tax evasion, but I do love that thinking of a finder's fee for tax cheats. Maybe I am among the few who want the fire department to come if my house catches on fire? And I do love not falling into some huge talking pot hole while driving about. And I don't have an issue paying for welfare if the person needs it or day care for little ones who do no wrong or the school funded lunches. It is what it is and a fair share should be paid by all in my humble opinion.

    Did you hear the news last night that Tanning bed providers shall be taxed 10%...interesting, guess they will help fund all that skin cancer needing medical treatment.

    OK back to my original thought. What shall you do Auntie Messy? Have you Googled, Cleaning Lady Mafia...did love that by the way! Maybe there's an entire ring of CG awaiting your intervention. Will we know you when you make headline news? Hmmm? And then will there be politician's wives on air saying...I don't recall, what does "is" mean...I was only aware my toilets were sparkly...

  20. My last two cents.... any household where everyone is busy working 40 hours a week should entertain the idea of having a house keeper and no one in their right mind should ever feel bad that they missed a bit of dust over time. There is no sane reason why a woman should work full time and be the only one in the house spending her evenings and weekends cleaning...ha..in her free time...don't get me started! Cleaning house is the one event everyone should participate in or hire it out so everyone chips in. ;o)

  21. UPDATE!

    I had dinner (At my local. Yummy beer, delicious steak frites, I'll be in Heaven for days.) with MOCN tonight.

    She reports that she called the CG with her new cleaner standing beside her when she was on the phone, then turned to the new cleaner and said, "There. You don't have to pay her any more. Every nickel I pay you is YOURS."

    A fair solution. The CG is entitled to nothing. All she did is refer her clients to other cleaners. She pays no taxes. They get no benefits. She is not, therefore acting as an "agent" or "manager" to any of them. She's just extorting them for money.

    The young lady was scared because she was afraid that the CG would call ALL of her clients and tell them that she was no longer endorsing the new girl. No fear there. She does a lovely job and no one would take the CG seriously if she claimed that the job wasn't getting done.

    "Whew* Glad that's settled!