Worrying about my housekeeper during COVID-19. What to do?
April 21, 2020 5:05 AM   Subscribe

My beloved, longtime housekeeper has not been working during the COVID-19 crisis. My finances are stable so far and I have offered to pay her at the normal rate during the downtime, which she refuses. She asked to start working again in early May, which is not even remotely going to be safe in our hard-hit metro area. I declined this offer. I am struggling with guilt and am not even really sure what criteria I might use to agree to have her back. Help?

I am fearful for her health in general in this moment. Her proposal to return included a suggestion which leads me to think that she's doesn't understand the mechanics of transmission (i.e., for us to stay in the basement while she works.) English is not her first language. I work in the biomedical field (am not at risk for exposure) and am only too aware of the modes of transmission. Would be appropriate or insulting to try to find information to share with her in her first language?

I am fearful for my family's health if our house is one of her stops. No one in my household is immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable, but we have imposed shelter in place strictly and I am not yet ready to risk this. As I contemplate this, I realize that I have no idea what criteria to establish that would even make sense to bring her back. Hive mind, can you help me think this through?

Finally, I think it's very likely that she's severely financially strapped. I worry about this too, but as I've said, my offers to give her money have been refused. I cannot blame her for wanting to get back to work and earn money, but I feel so guilty saying "no" to her offer at this point. I realize that I can only control what I do (have people in my house or not, and under what circumstance; offer to pay her her normal salary.) I can't control what she does (work if she can when and where she can, refuse my offer to pay her.) Maybe I would feel less guilty if I could get clear about under what circumstances it would be acceptable to say "yes"?

If you've had a housekeeper on hiatus during this crisis, how are you handling bringing them back to work?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My cleaner has accepted my money, so I haven't had to make this decision. Could you maybe frame it as "paying in advance"? Would that make it easier for her to accept?
posted by mskyle at 5:21 AM on April 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

I have offered to pay her at the normal rate during the downtime, which she refuses. She asked to start working again in early May, which is not even remotely going to be safe in our hard-hit metro area. I declined this offer. I am struggling with guilt

The way out of struggling with guilt is to keep renewing the offer to pay her a retainer at her normal rate until there's no longer a good reason why having people work across multiple homes is unsafe. If she keeps on refusing, then as an autonomous adult she has every right to make that choice and live with the consequences; as long as you keep the offer open and she's aware of that, there's no need at all for guilt on your part.

For what it's worth, I've made the same offer for the same reason with the same result, but then, I live in a country that isn't actively trying to kill off its non-billionaires; the friend who usually cleans our place says she's doing OK with government support and doesn't need ours for the time being.
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 AM on April 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

If she won’t accept full pay, would she accept a smaller sum that you frame as a retainer? Better than nothing, and might be more acceptable to her.
posted by penguin pie at 6:18 AM on April 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just asked my cleaner's address and started mailing checks without asking if she wanted me to. I figured if I asked she would probably say no, it's fine, but our budget is not affected by this, so I have the money to give her.

Your housekeeper chose May to start working (and getting paid again), so start paying her in May but don't let her come to work till it's safe.

If she wants to "pay you back" in money or in hours after she's coming to your house again, that's something you can discuss when the time comes.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:24 AM on April 21, 2020 [12 favorites]

Would she possibly accept a gift card to a grocery store or perhaps a direct payment to a utility company on her behalf? Accepting cash without performing a task can be a difficult thing for some.
posted by kittygrandma at 6:44 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would tell her that she's a wonderful housekeeper and because of that you want to keep her; you've had bad experiences in the past and absolutely don't want to lose a good housekeeper like her. But you're also not able to have her come to your house. So you're paying her to keep your time slot open for you, when you're ready to have her back. Also she's keeping her part of the bargain (being ready and willing to show up to work), so you're keeping your part too.

Maybe you can also tell her that your employer is paying your full salary you even though you're not coming in to work (even if you work from home maybe you can fudge and say you're not doing a full workload). So if your employer is continuing to pay you, then you as her employer plan to continue paying her.

Basically, frame paying her not as an act of charity but as a testament to her skills, as the normal thing to do in this pandemic, and as basic justice and logic. Depending on her personality you might stress one of those aspects over the others.
posted by trig at 7:09 AM on April 21, 2020 [20 favorites]

Adding to trig's suggested framing, tell her that you cannot have her come because it would make you too worried, and that since you are the one telling her not to come, you would also feel guilty not paying her? E.g., her not coming but still accepting the money is something that would make you feel better.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:14 AM on April 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

We told our housecleaner that we couldn't have the external contact for our health safety at this time, but that we were going to continue paying her because it was the right thing to do. I framed it as 'some large companies are doing this, so we should do the same'. She was enormously grateful.

As a note, she later contacted us, saying she was doing shopping/errand type things for some of her other clients and extended the offer to us (at no additional cost, given that we were already paying her).
posted by 8dot3 at 7:16 AM on April 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Accepting cash without performing a task can be a difficult thing for some

It surely can. But the point to remain aware of, for the purpose of not needing to suffer completely unnecessary guilt, is that deciding whether the discomfort of accepting cash without working for it is worse than the discomfort of not having the cash is entirely the business of the person who actually makes that decision.

As long as an offer of no-strings-attached payment remains open, then all of the responsibility for the consequences of declining that offer belongs with the person actually declining it and none needs to be taken on by the person making the offer.

Trying to push somebody else into acting against their own conscience with something akin to a sales pitch strikes me as both completely uncalled for and fundamentally disrespectful.
posted by flabdablet at 7:19 AM on April 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Can you frame it as paying her TO stay home, rather than paying her and then not having her do any work? Staying home is a great contribution she can make to society right now, and it takes enormous effort and sacrifice especially if your work is outside the home. You are paying her for that effort.
posted by babelfish at 7:23 AM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

We are also very strictly sheltering in place and continuing to pay our housekeeper, for whom English is not his first language. He was initially resistant to accepting pay without working, but also did disclose that he needs to work& needs the money, I framed it that it was about keeping us all safe, and that “we wanted to help him be able to stay in business.” (I don’t know how helpful printing literature would be helping to understand transmission, Presuming it’s not conveyed in a patronizing manner, which it doesn’t sound like, but in full disclosure, when our housekeeper first started with us I did print some lists/instructions in his native language to go over together, and he was appreciative-although he learned English a lot more quickly than I have his language. So that could be helpful if hers is a less common language and materials aren’t readily available.) I agree with the approach about paying in advance or discussing options for deeper cleaning, etc. when you do resume service.

Also maybe not something to suggest, but if she wants to not do nothing, consider if there is other work that you would be comfortable having her perform and talking with her about other options? E.g. Our housekeeper is pretty resourceful so had also started a new business creating gift baskets with packaged sweets, etc. from his home country, which we ordered a couple of for no contact drop off. In the vein of household tasks, maybe she could do no contact pick up/drop off ironing or mending?
posted by subwaytiles at 8:14 AM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

I asked my team, the first time, to clean the outside of my windows (as best they could, there were some limits) instead of doing the inside cleaning. That was a win/win; they were happy to be earning the money and I was happy to have the windows cleaned.

The second time I sent them a check, asked them not to come, and made a vague statement that they could help me with something later. They weren't real comfortable with this and told me "not to worry about it" next time; I take this to mean they don't like getting money they haven't earned.

The next time I'm not sure what we'll do but I was thinking about either asking them to wash our cars or possibly as a retainer on an evening of help washing dishes for the next time my extended family gets together.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:27 AM on April 21, 2020

I just asked my cleaner's address and started mailing checks without asking if she wanted me to. I figured if I asked she would probably say no, it's fine, but our budget is not affected by this, so I have the money to give her.

We did this same thing. When we just asked she said "no, no, it's okay." Then when we reframed it as "we have this in our budget and want to pay you, please help us figure out how" she was happy to provide that info.
posted by AgentRocket at 9:12 AM on April 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

At their suggestion, our cleaner has been doing outdoor yard work instead of cleaning inside the house.
posted by monotreme at 9:27 AM on April 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Longshot, but if she sews, could you hire her to make masks and then you can donate them?
posted by MountainDaisy at 12:17 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

It occurs to me that in childcare, it's perfectly reasonable for a provider to accept payment for holding a place open for a child when there are times that the child is not in care. It's beneficial to the provider, as it stabilizes income, and beneficial to the family, because it ensures that the "space" will be available when the child again needs it.

Is it possible that your desire to continue paying her could be explained, and perhaps accepted by her, in a similar manner? That you wish to ensure that you will retain your "spot" in her schedule, even though you don't need any services at this time?
posted by stormyteal at 12:20 PM on April 21, 2020

I sense that you are concerned for your housekeeper's financial security. If she has a social security number, and you don't currently pay into social security for her, please consider doing so. My mother did this for her decades-long weekly housecleaner, and of all the long-term employers this cleaner worked for, my mom was the only person who did this. Her cleaner also received two week's paid vacation and a week's payment every Christmas. When the cleaner did retire, she was able to receive at least some social security benefit.

There is an employer-paid and a worker-paid portion; my mother paid both. She died more than a decade ago, and her former cleaner is still getting social security payments. It probably isn't much, but it's something she will receive for the rest of her life.
posted by citygirl at 12:48 PM on April 21, 2020 [7 favorites]

How do you pay her? We didn't ask if we could keep paying her, we've just been continuing to do so. We pay on Venmo. We haven't discussed bringing her back anytime soon.
posted by amaire at 2:48 PM on April 21, 2020

Count me as one of the people who is just continuing to sending a check to the family-run cleaning service we use, and gift cards are also a good suggestion. I also like the Social Security suggestion. It is also not a bad idea to ask if your housekeeper could do some outside things, like windows, or car washing (or garage cleanup if you have one and don't use it all the time, or just use it for storage like many people do??) Maybe also could she plant some flowers for you, either outside as a border, or in planters or window boxes, if that would be an option?, assuming you could get stuff delivered.

As a side note, this web page has a number of Covid-19 posters and fact sheets, some simple, and some more detailed, in a variety of languages.
posted by gudrun at 3:02 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

The first day my cleaner was scheduled to come and couldn't because of the pandemic, I didn't tell her not to come until that day. So I told her that I was paying her since it was short notice. Now I have the info I need to pay her, and I've just kept doing it.

Nthing don't ask for permission.
posted by bunderful at 5:52 PM on April 21, 2020

it may be mandatory in your state to give her paid sick/vacation days and I think covid falls under this.
posted by brujita at 7:33 PM on April 21, 2020

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