Constant Testing and New Demands: A Look at L.A. Housekeeping During COVID-19

ONE TIME USE ONLY - 21sty_housecleaning_W_main- Illustration by Jiaqi Wang- H 2020
Jiaqi Wang

After letting go of household staff this spring, elite Los Angeles homeowners are hiring again but with extra precautions and also sometimes extra work for employees.

Claudia Kahn’s interactions with clients have changed markedly since California went into COVID-19 lockdown. Early on — when owners of pricey L.A. homes laid off or heavily purged housekeeping staffs to create environments with fewer people — Kahn, owner of The Help Company, was on the phone constantly with clients, giving them tips on doing their own cleaning. "We've been having wonderful conversations about domesticity, though I may have been responsible for selling more Shark and Bissell floor washers than anyone else this year," says Kahn.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nonprofit organization that monitors labor protections for housekeepers, nannies and home care assistants, confirms the downward employment trend, with more than 60 percent of private housekeepers across the U.S. reporting in an April NDWA survey that they were out of work.

But in the first week of August, the number reporting being out of work had fallen to 38 percent, and Kahn and others who oversee staffing agencies in Los Angeles say phones are ringing again. "Everything went quiet for about 30 to 45 days. After that, everybody realized that life goes on, and they’re wanting to return to a sense of normalcy," says Melanie Karaian of Colonial Domestic Agency. “But they’re doing so with precautions.”

Those include initial Zoom interviews with follow-up meetings taking place on a patio or other outdoor area. Negative COVID-19 tests are expected from client and prospective employee prior to hiring. While requests for live-in housekeepers have increased — a new employee may be asked to self-quarantine in a separate section of the house for two weeks — live-out situations remain more common.

“Some clients have an agreement with their live-out staff to only work at their house, go directly home and not interact with anyone outside their job,” reports Jack Lippman, owner of the Elizabeth Rose Agency.

Another trend: Live-in housekeepers may be asked not to leave the property on days off, a request that can be accompanied by extra access to such areas as pools and media rooms, so they’re not feeling isolated.

“Everybody is trying to be flexible and sensitive,” says Lippman. "If I get a sense that a client isn't flexible, I'm not going to work with them. Everybody has to be fair and polite and respectful for this to work."

Despite the extra precautions, many housekeepers are not being paid much more. “Some clients are paying 10 percent more, but that’s it,” says Kahn. “I will say that we’ve seen an increase of 20 to 30 percent of clients willing to pay for health care, so that’s been a positive.”

And COVID tests are being administered regularly. "Some clients ask their staff to go to an urgent care office for testing, but I have one client who has their physician come out to the house once a month, and everyone is tested together," Karaian says. "In both cases, the client pays for all testing."

These days some housekeepers are being asked to do work beyond cleaning. Bryan Peele, founder and president of the Estate Managers Coalition, says, “People now are saying, ‘If we get a good housekeeper, perhaps she also can manage the house a little, or cook lunch.’ Everybody is looking for a Jack or Jill of all trades.” He adds that he also has not seen a marked increase in salaries: "I have seen an increase in responsibilities, though not the compensation for it."

And a number of housekeepers who were just part-time previously are now landing full-time work. “If someone only wants a housekeeper three days a week, I tell them, ‘You have to understand, this person needs five days of work, so they’re not going to have another job elsewhere,’” Kahn adds. “That will convince a client to expand a part-time job into a full-time job. I’ve had that conversation three times recently.”

Julie Kashen — senior policy adviser at the NDWA — cautions that some employees in the current environment may be taken advantage of because “people are rightfully worried about holding on to their jobs, so it seems unlikely that somebody would feel empowered to speak up and take care of their own needs. It’s a systemic problem that we have not valued the work women do, and the work women of color do, and the way they deserve to be valued. But who is and who isn’t an essential worker has taken on a new meaning. If a housekeeper is an essential worker in your home, then they should be treated that way and compensated accordingly.”

Kashen also suggests working with the NDWA’s guidelines (available at DomesticWorkers.org) for workers and employees, which include templates of employment agreements. “If more is being asked of someone working in your home, it’s important that those expectations are put in writing, so both sides can agree on something that works for everyone,” she says.  

That written agreement could extend to other new rules, such as mandates that head-to-toe uniforms be worn inside the home only, with live-out employees changing all their clothes when arriving and departing. How tasks are handled likewise has evolved. Polishing the silver or folding laundry might happen poolside instead of inside the home, while outdoor kitchens, once reserved for pool parties or barbecues, are getting more use. "People are getting a lot more creative, no question," Kahn says.

Clients also shouldn’t stress about how carefully their homes are being cleaned, says The Grapevine Agency’s Lori Zuker Briller. “This level of housekeeper knows the meaning of deep cleaning,” she says. “They’re very thorough. And remember, they’re living in these spaces as well. But if you’re envisioning the Ghostbusters coming in with hazmat suits, that’s not happening.”

That might be true of private homes, but Paul Roberta, owner of Irvine-based Clean Care Services, which uses a plant-based antimicrobial to disinfect office buildings and other businesses, says COVID-19 has resulted in new work. “Owners of yachts have started calling me,” he says. “We’re scheduled to do a 105-foot yacht in Newport Beach, and they’ve said they’ll want us to come in frequently. We’ve never gotten those calls before.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.