Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mentchlichkeit and Household Help

A recent posting on Orthonomics dealt with household cleaning help. I made a comment there which got me thinking a bit further, resulting in this posting.

There seem to be only two points of view about cleaning help--either you love the idea or you hate it. Those who love it have various reasons for doing so; those who hate it also have various reasons. But when you look at the reasons of those who hate cleaning help, there are some common complaints that arise. One, the help steals from the house. Two, the help does not do a good job. Three, the help does not speak English. Four, the house never actually seems to get clean. You probably have a good idea of what the other complaints might be.

Let me start this way. You get a new job. The pay is only so-so and there are no benefits. Every day you are rotated to a different location within the company. You deal with a different boss each day. The equipment and supplies in each of your offices are different from the other offices. In some of the offices there is insufficient equipment and supplies to do the job correctly. One day you may be using Word 98 while being expected to turn out perfect documents. Another day you are faced with XP. One of your offices may still be using old fashioned rexograph machines while another of your offices may be using state of the art digital equipment. One of your bosses may not believe in coffee breaks and considers that 37 seconds is enough time to gulp down lunch, a lunch that you need to provide. Another boss may provide coffee. A third may only provide water. In one office the clutter you find when you arrive to go to work may seriously get in the way of your actual duties. You spend so much time just straightening things up that you cannot finish what you need to do. Another one of your bosses always has "little" extras for you to accomplish in addition to your regular job, and always to be pushed in to the same working day. One of your bosses is the highly suspicious kind and is always counting the paperclips after you've neatened up the desk. If a clip is missing, you must have filched it. By the way, this particular boss is usually the one in an office area that is cluttered and where nothing is ever put away in its right place to begin with.

How happy would you be with the job above? Would you be the perfect employee, immediately adjusting to each new situation? Just how much work would YOU get done under the circumstances listed? The women who clean homes for a living are faced with the above and worse on a weekly basis. Every day they are in a different home with a different "boss." Some of those bosses are suspicious and resentful; some are not. Some of the bosses are organized and some are not. Some of the bosses expect miracles from their cleaning help, miracles they, themselves, are incapable of producing in the time period allotted. Some of the bosses are helpful and some are not. Some of the bosses assume that adding extra jobs does not equate to adding extra pay, the assumption being that the worker will work faster to get everything done. Some of these bosses are so chintzy that they can make a penny squeal in pain as it gets pinched. Some of these bosses have open contempt on their faces as they look at their cleaning help.

For the past 16 years I have had steady cleaning help in the house. That help has consisted of only 2 women. Thanks to my schedule I am often not there for long periods of time when my cleaning help is in the house. In those 16 years I have never had anything stolen from me; quite the opposite in fact. My help managed to find an earring I was sure I had lost forever. Whether I am physcially present or not in my home my cleaning help does what she was hired for.

I make no claims to being the world's best boss, but I do follow two precepts that my mother gave to me. The first is that bad bosses make for bad employees. I make sure that equipment is in good working order and that I have shown my help precisely how to use that equipment. I make sure that supplies are available. I make sure that what I want done can be done given the time period available for doing it. If I need or want extra work I make sure to discuss it to see if that will work out time-wise with my help, and then I pay for that extra work. No, my help's main language is not English, so I have made it my business to improve her vocabulary and understanding of English. I say "please" and "thank you" when making requests. My present help doesn't like to take out the time to sit and eat a full lunch, although I have offered it. But she likes to have a coffee or something cold to drink and a nosh to go with it, and I gladly provide this. It's the mentchliche thing to do.

When I go on vacation my cleaning help gets her regular pay as her "vacation money." When it comes to the winter holiday season she gets more than a week's pay as a gift. She has two young children and I buy books/toys for them as well. She brings me coupons for items she has seen I use in my house, and I give her the coupons for the non-kosher items I don't use. When it comes before Pesach and other holidays I ask for extra time and extra days and I get them, because she likes working in my home. Having established a schedule of what gets done when with her I don't follow her around with a magnifying glass and I don't hover.

In no way, shape or form can one person working for 6 hours clean an entire house in every possible way. And she certainly can't do this if the house is a true mess when she arrives. Removing clutter actually takes more time than cleaning does. I do plenty of cleaning and straightening up all week; otherwise my cleaning help would be thrown out money. Some jobs are hers, some are mine. I do not ask my help to do the impossible and the improbable.

We are three friends who share this cleaning help. There was a fourth but our help quit working for her. This person took the hourly rate our help gets and divided it by 60. If she worked 11 minutes more than the 6 hours she came for, this person paid her 11 minutes of extra money. Penny wise and pound foolish comes to mind. You don't nickel and dime someone who is providing a service you need/want.

And that brings me to the second precept my mother gave me. My mother grew up in a wealthy home in Europe and there were maids, plural. My grandparents owned a hotel and restaurant. Early in the morning my grandmother and great grandmother would already have put up the huge pans of chicken to roast for the midday meal. They would have baked fresh rolls. It was considered a meichel to dip one of those fresh rolls into the roasting pan juices. Family members fought for the privilege. Imagine their surprise when my great grandmother dipped two of those rolls into the juices, placed them on a plate, took the kitchen maid by the hand and sat her down at the table to eat. As my great grandmother put it "Ess, ess mein kindt. Ich darf dich far mir." Eat my child. I need you for me.

I never forget that my cleaning help is doing just that--she is helping me. And if I didn't have her, what she does would be left for me to do. Her work allows me the time to do other things I have to do/want to do. Her work saves my strength. I don't just barely tolerate her presence in my home; I welcome her into it.

Others have remonstrated with me that I'm "spoiling" my cleaning help. These women should be grateful that they are being "allowed" to clean our houses. I wonder just how many hours of school these commenters slept through. I wonder just what kinds of homes they came from that human decency and mentchlichkeit applies only to those exactly like them.

This all boils down to some simple ideas. Good help is made not born. Good bosses make good help. Acting with respect and decency is a requirement no matter to whom. Frankly, with only rare exceptions, when I hear stories that begin with "my cleaning help is awful" I wonder about the speakers, not the cleaning help.


Anonymous said...

My wife works full time and we have cleaning help in the house. For us it is a necessity. Our present help has been working for us for over 5 years. Like you we are fair in what we ask for and in what we provide her. Our children have also been taught that the cleaning help is not a replacement for their efforts to keep their things in order. When one child once left a room in complete disorder, with clothing on the floor, dirty plates on the desk etc., my wife told the cleaning help not to clean the room. His was the only room not done and he quickly got the idea that the cleaning help is not his replacement but only an adjunct.

Not only does she not steal from us but when we were broken into a few years ago she was invaluable in coming up with a list of missing items for the police and insurance company. She caught a number of missing things that we had not noticed until she pointed them out.

But I think you got it right when you talk about the contempt with which some people view their help. How does this in any way illustrate Jewish values?

Anonymous said...

My mom never had cleaning help but she was a stay at home mom unlike me with a part time job, graduate school and young kids. My husband and I agreed on cleaning help twice a month but had no idea on how to organize what she needed to do. My aunt was a tremendous help here. Her cleaning help is also long term and she sat me down and taught me how to organize the schedule. She looked over my house with me and we decided which jobs could be managed by us and which were going to be for the help. She came over the first time we had the cleaning help to make sure that everything ran smoothly. Thanks to my aunt I don't have the problems with help that many of my friends do.

And yes the first thing my aunt told me was that you treat your cleaning help just like they are a human being, because they are. And she also told me that under no circumstances was I to ever refer to my help as the goyta. Her feeling is that if you use that word you have somehow made the person less then a real human being.

Anonymous said...

The problem of treating household help like subhumans spreads far beyond the frum community. And not only to cleaning help but, in places where they are employed, to the nannies. My wife knew many in our area when our children were younger. She could never understand how anyone with a small fraction of a brain could mistreat the person to whom they entrusted the care of their child. We took in one on weekends in the winter when the family would go to their second home, leaving the nanny in their house with the heat turned off. And what kind of message do you give your (as I recall about 4 year old) child when the live-in nanny entrusted with her care is not trusted to use the treadmill in the basement+.

concernedjewgirl said...

I agree 150%!

My cleaning help is incredible. I pay more for that, and I know it. I try to treat her as if she were my friend doing me a favor, not the other way around. She is human, and is making a living therefore instead of pushing her down, I support her price increases and try to treat her with as much respect and decency as I would a friend.

Thank you for the tip on holidays. My cleaning help started right before Pesach so I haven't gone through the holiday seasons with her yet. Do you do something for jewish holidays as well?

ProfK said...

Re the Jewish holidays it all depends on how they fall during the week. If, as has happened a few times, my day is going to be yom tov over the course of four weeks then I try to get a different day during the week for the holiday time period. If that does not always work out then, because I have friends who use her services as well, we split up a day, each getting 4 hours, but pay her for 6.

We sort of do it this way: if she cancels a day and doesn't offer another one in its stead, she doesn't get paid. If I cancel a day and she can't give me another one in its stead she gets paid anyway.

Anonymous said...

Mike is right that it is a broad socieatal problem the way household help of all kinds is treated but that doesn't excuse the way a lot of frum Jews treat their help. I was in a friend's house when her 5 year old said to the cleaning woman "The bell rang. Go put the laundry into the dryer." The mother was embarrassed and told the girl that she needed to say please when making a request. The little girl looked at her mother very puzzled. "Why mommy? You don't when you talk to Anya." If nothing else then being a mentch is a matter of chinuch l'bonim.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any of us know exactly how much time it takes to do all the cleaning jobs in our houses. I sort of used to know how long it took to clean a bathroom fully but when I actually timed myself one day I was off by a lot. I think this is one of the problems when people have cleaning help. They assume the help can get everything done in a few hours because they don't know how much time each job takes.

Bas~Melech said...

You know what really grosses me out? Seeing frum (usually heimish/chaseedish) people talk down to hired workers. I'm not saying they all do it, but when I do see it, it bothers me so much that it hurts! The way they demand things from people... yuck. What a chillul Hashem.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Bas Melech - I'm wondering how much of that is a rascism issue, or at least connected to an especially American tendency for people to "talk down," or excessively loudly, to those whose mother tongue is not the national language.

Of course there's always the vicious cycle of talking down to someone to devalue him, which then "justifies" paying him less or mistreating him further, thus he "deserves" to be talked down to, etc.

Lion of Zion said...


so much concern for your domestic help? you must either be from OOT or you've been infected by your liberal academic colleagues.

(before anyone jumps on me, i am just being saracastic)


"Seeing frum (usually heimish/chaseedish) people talk down to hired workers."

i did a five-week internship on ave j. this past spring. this gave me the (unfortunate) opportunity to frequent the local eateries. while there i got to see the disgusting the way patrons, especially the boys (from the whole hashkafic range), talked to the workers. "hey amigo, i need a slice and fries pronto." ugh. these workers have a better work ethic than many yeshiva kids will ever have
(i mentioned this at the end of my post here)

Gila said...

Thanks for the tips. I just started having a cleaning lady...will keep all of your pointers in mind!