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Maid Services Clean Up As Lifestyles Change

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Most working couples, and singles, too, would rather have someone else do the dirty work. And some professional housecleaning and maid services are getting on hands and knees to oblige.

Once thought to be a luxury for the rich and famous, maids and professional housekeepers have become a necessity squeezed into budgets of some who have little time for household chores.

Touting step-by-step plans and cleaning routines, such as “21 steps to clean a bathroom“ and a pledge to clean hard-surface floors on hands and knees, maid services are being invited into houses, apartments and


Increased demand has followed the changes in lifestyles that emerged in the 1970s, and some maid service businesses estimate the housekeeping industry to be a $10 billion-a-year business.

“There wasn`t much of a housekeeping industry to speak of before,“ said Dallen Peterson, who along with his wife, Glennis, founded Merry Maids Inc. in 1980. “Most of the businesses like ours really got going in the `70s and took off in the `80s.“

According to the International Franchise Association, there were 812 maid service franchises in the United States in 1986, 1,214 in 1987 and 1,621 already in 1988.

A survey of the Chicago Yellow Page Directory in 1970 found 17 maid service businesses listed. The pages now list 87 in the city alone.

As the business has grown, its character has changed and become more corporate. Many maid services began as home-run operations but have evolved into franchises with services nationwide and even internationally.

Last week, the nation`s largest maid service franchise, Merry Maids, was acquired by ServiceMaster Co., a firm most commonly known for being in the industrial cleaning business. It saw home care business as a growing industry. ServiceMaster serves more than 2 million customers in North America with cleaning, lawn care, termite and pest control services and has networks in Japan, Great Britain and other European countries. It started HomeBrite, a maid service of its own, last fall but decided it needed to acquire an established business.

“We studied the (maid service) market for over a year before getting into it,“ said C. William Pollard, president and chief executive of ServiceMaster.

“We wanted to offer a complete line of services to the home market, which is growing rapidly,“ he said. “We`re now studying some additional service concepts to provide the consumer with a care-free home.“

Merry Maids, which has grown by about 35 percent a year, has estimated sales of $38 million. It recently signed a master franchise agreement in Australia. Negotiations also are underway for Merry Maids franchises in Canada and Japan.

In the Chicago area, the yellow-and-green uniforms and Merry Maids logo can be found in Barrington, Lisle, Wheaton, Schaumburg, Clarendon Hills, Tinley Park and West Chicago.

The maid business has changed as its customer base has changed, said Merry Maids` Peterson, noting that 80 percent of Merry Maids` business comes from working couples.

“When we first started, most of our customers were people who had domestics at one time,“ he said. “The service was initially geared to the middle- to upper-income levels, but our base is much more mixed today. We have people who`d never had anyone come in and clean their house.“

Housecleaning services even can take credit for settling disputes between the modern-day couple.

“Housekeeping services like ours may have saved a few marriages,“ said Peterson. “In large metropolitan areas where people spend a lot of time commuting, they don`t want to spend the free time they have cleaning and maintaining their home.“

David McKinnon, who heads the Molly Maids U.S. operation along with Frank Flack, said, “Households where the husband and wife work and family income is in excess of $40,000 are ones who call on us. The working woman is really driving the demand for these services.“

But cleaning is cleaning. Although few people take pleasure in doing it, there`s always been someone willing to clean house, from the white-uniformed women who do “day work“ to those who are called in on special occasions to serve and clean up after cocktail parties in private homes. But now cleaning has become an organized business.

“The housekeeper has been around for a long time,“ said Coralee Smith Kern, who started the Chicago-based Maid to Order in 1971. “More services have popped up in the city and the general area.“

When Kern decided to make a business out of cleaning, she started the business from her home with one employee. She now employs 50.

Kern, however, is calling it quits after nearly 17 years and is planning to sell her maid business. Kern, executive director of the National Association for the Cottage Industry, now hopes to pursue work on behalf of the cottage industry full-time.

“Cleaning is an easy business to get into, but a hard one to stay in,“

How our maid changed my perspective

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My mother has always had a way with the housemaids; almost all our mothers do have a similar set of emotions for them. For me, dealing with housemaids had always been a bad experience. My mother often said, “Look she is the one who is doing the real work for us — cooking, cleaning, washing and all other necessary things. Money isn’t enough to thank them for their services. You ought to pay them a lot of respect.”

Meanwhile I had a strange repugnance for them. Their shrill voices got onto my nerves, the dreadful look they passed when I walked through the mopped part of the floor, their continuous gossiping about other aunties of my locality disturbed me.

My last housemaid was succeeded by a girl, in her early twenties. Her name was Gayatri. She was the one who was recommended by the former housemaid before she left to stay with her son in some different city. The first day she arrived, I still remember, I was leaving for school. She never looked up, while she walked. That’s the reason why she was about to bump into me when I somehow dodged her and rushed away for my bus. When I returned, I told my mother about the morning incident. Perhaps, it was one of my wage attempts to justify my hatred for them. She shushed me as usual.

If there was a term to justify my feelings for all the maids, it would be animosity, extreme hatred. But she was a little different. Over the days, I found that she never screamed or yelled. I barely heard her voice throughout the day. She never rose up her head to watch who passed through the freshly mopped floor. The payment was the only thing she spoke for, that too very softly. Astonishingly, she had dissolved my disregard towards the housemaids. Thus, one fine day, I asked my mother about the reason of her being different from others we had yet. It was pretty different than what I had expected.

My mother told me that she was the daughter of one of the other maids who died of a disease, a few years back. Her mother had toiled hard to get her the basic education. Her father had died long ago. The only dream that her mother had was to see her complete her education. The same year, she was married to a man who was earning in some coal mine. Naturally it was not a choice but was a result of the pressure from the society. Her spouse denied her any further education and thus she had to quit. Her spouse died after two years of their marriage of some accident in the coal mines. She had two children to look after and hence she started working as a maid.

She never talked about anything. I had never seen her smile in that complete one year. She lived in a small hut that was in a nearby slum area where most of the housemaids lived. Her children rolled and played in the dust all day, until she returned for lunch and then dinner.

It was the time for my new sessions to begin and I had just bought my new school books. She entered my room to broom the floor when she saw my new books and kept staring for a moment. I could see that yearning for those books, perhaps, her lost education. But she knew that she couldn’t pursue her education now. Hence, she resumed to broom the floor.

That day, I decided to do something for her. I stacked in a pile of all my elementary level school books that were in fine condition and asked for some more along with some extra stationary stuff from the rest of my friends. We carried them to her house, the very next Sunday evening on my bicycle. Near the door was a little kid who jumped towards us in excitement, once we approached. He then ran in, through the small door and came out holding her by the hand while she was reluctant. She opened the door in bewilderment. The following moment was full of complex emotions on her part. She saw that pile of books and other stationary stuff and my smiling friends and her dancing children. She smiled too, while tears rolled down her face. She said she was obliged. I don’t know whether those books were of any help to her kids. I didn’t care if I had to spare my new pack of crayons. All I knew was that she had smiled, for the first time that day, after a long time.
(By Shivam Satyam)