The Humanist Dilemma: Can We Ever Pay People Who Clean up after Us Enough?

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Coming Clean: My beloved cleaning lady of more than twenty-five years recently retired. After interviewing several possible replacements, I found a person I liked. I asked her how much money she wanted, and she gave me a number that was quite a bit less than the amount I had been paying most recently. I offered to pay her the amount her predecessor had been getting. She seemed very happily surprised and accepted the job.

I made the mistake of mentioning that detail to my family. My husband, children, and even my mother-in-law told me I was a fool for paying more than I needed to. I thought to pay less would be taking advantage of the woman, who might be low-balling to get the job, or because she didn’t know how much she could/should ask for. I also thought it might make her more loyal, as I’ve heard of cleaning people leaving for more money elsewhere rather than asking for a raise.

My family acts like I committed some kind of treason. Did I?

-Shouldn’t Have Mentioned It


Dear Shouldn’t,

Do you mean shouldn’t have mentioned it to your new cleaning lady or to your family? I hope the latter.

I too have been counseled that “never pay more than you have to” is a wise business practice, and I suppose there are cases where that applies in a capitalist economy. But I’m also appalled at the haggling that goes on in tourist markets, where the couple of bucks being fought over makes little difference to the tourist but can make a world of difference to the local vendor. Some people say it’s a sport expected and enjoyed by both parties, but I know I’d rather skip the back-and-forth and spend my time doing something else. I also know that people who have worked for tips become very generous tippers themselves, even if they can’t really afford to, and they tell hair-raising tales of what happens to customers who underpay or over-demand.

You are under no obligation to pay more than mutually agreed, even if it’s below market. I’m sure some will say that paying more than necessary raises expectations for everyone (in other words, the price of cleaning people will skyrocket), and sets you up as a pushover who is careless about your money. They may also warn that it will bite you later on, with endless requests for raises, or pocketing the change in the sofa cushions, or worse. I don’t buy it. I believe that people who clean houses are in a terrible position for bargaining, exercising their rights and demanding their benefits (which are very few), being accused when anything goes missing or broken, and generally being taken advantage of, intentionally or unintentionally, by cruel or clueless employers.

Unless the difference would affect whether you could afford hiring professional cleaning help or would involve other sacrifices, I believe you did the right thing by offering more than asked for but no more than you were accustomed to paying, and I commend you for it. It may not be the best choice in terms of getting a bargain, but it strikes me as what a humanist who is concerned about the well-being of the other person would do.

By the way, there may actually be a legal minimum wage and other protections for domestic workers in your state, and if not, they could be coming soon (or at least that was afoot during the prior administration). Please read this article to understand the plight of these hardworking, overlooked professionals and what they are doing about it.