What your cleaner really thinks about you

·7 min read
Claire Potter is a self-employed domestic cleaner - Claire Potter
Claire Potter is a self-employed domestic cleaner - Claire Potter

In his plan to ease lockdown restrictions, Boris Johnson is “actively encouraging” those who can’t work from home to return to work. 

As a self-employed domestic cleaner, I fall into this category. The Prime Minister's announcement has caused a heated debate about the ethics of employing a cleaner during these Covid times. Should they be letting us stay at home? What about paying our wages? I've been a cleaner for three and a half years, and I've seen it all. So here's what I really think about returning to work, and facing the state of your houses after two months apart. 

I’m a mother of two children, one who's four and one who's eight. With no childcare available and grandparents off limits, I have no option but to stay at home. Some of my elderly clients are shielding due to health issues. I don't feel comfortable returning to work as I could put them in danger too. Because of this, I’m grateful that three of my clients have carried on paying me. One in particular lives in a huge house, and they’re paying me a substantial amount. Mostly, I get paid by bank transfer, but before lockdown some of my elderly clients preferred to pay in cash. 

That’s not to say I’m pleased about having the time off. After almost four years in the business, I’ve formed strong bonds with several of my clients. I’ve got one lady who is in her nineties, and she loves to follow me around the house and chat to me while I clean. I used to work as a carer so I find it hard to step back from that responsibility. Now we’re in lockdown, I worry about not being there for some of them. 

However, it can be a difficult balancing act. Often when I need to put the hoover on, someone will continue trying to talk over it. I don’t want to be rude, but at the same time it’s annoying because I’m here to do a job. 

Then, there’s the things I definitely don’t miss about your homes after two months apart. I know that in certain houses, I will be greeted with overflowing bins, bathrooms that haven’t been touched and unwiped kitchen surfaces. I’m worried about finding mouldy food, too. In one of the houses, the cats like to bring in dead rabbits and squirrels. They smell disgusting, and I’m dreading finding these surprises scattered around the house. 

People don’t realise that as cleaners, we develop a special bond with the family pets. There are some dogs which roll over for me to give a tummy rub every time I’m doing the skirting boards. Cats, not so much. When they’re not bringing in dead animals, they’re usually running away from me because of the hoover.

Then there's the lists; don’t get me started on those. While they can be helpful, sometimes they're so long that I know I won’t get through all the chores. While most people politely leave the room when I start cleaning, I had one client who used to stand and watch me. It made me feel so uncomfortable; there was something strange about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. Plus, I hate having to ask for my money, but every week I had to remind him to put it in. Safe to say I didn’t stay working at that house for long.

It fills me with dread when people's family members come to stay. While my clients are good to me, it’s their relatives who look down on you. Quite often when I’m cleaning, someone will come in and start making lunch. I try to laugh it off, but at times it does get to me, knowing I will have to clean the surface all over again. 

It’s not just animals who can leave nasty surprises. I have one client who’s a young male and he lives on his own. Every time I make the bed, I have to avert my eyes away from all the stains on the duvet. Once, a parent asked me to empty out their teenage son's wardrobe. While I was organising the top, I came across some adult videos. That’s when being a family cleaner puts you in an awkward position; do you ignore them? Stack them neatly in a pile? Hand them to the parents? I dusted them off, and pretended not to see.

It’s true that you get to know the families you’re cleaning for quite well. I’ve become accustomed to hearing a lot of family arguments, and it’s a delicate balance between being a listening ear and feeling intrusive. When I’m working to an allotted time, there’s no time to linger and wait for arguments to finish. I try to stomp down the stairs noisily so they can hear me coming. Sometimes they stop fighting, but other times they just continue. Occasionally, someone's wife will come in and moan to me about her husband. ‘Bloody men,’ she’ll say. Then, ten minutes later, her husband will come in and moan to me about her. 

But despite all the anticipated mess, I am looking forward to returning to work. Nothing can beat a cup of tea and a good natter with someone who is not just an employer, but a friend too.

‘Cleaners are worried their clients will drop them if they don’t return to work’

By Claire Potter

Boris Johnson’s announcement has caused huge divides in the cleaning community. I’m a self employed cleaner who also runs an online Facebook group to support others in the industry; in the past few days, tensions have been running high.

One member of the group said that going back to work ‘was better than getting on the lazy bandwagon and making excuses.’ Others felt shamed, and felt they had to justify their decision not to back just yet. People need to understand that it’s not a case of laziness; it’s hard-working individuals being afraid of infecting themselves, their families and others, with coronavirus.

A lot of the girls in the group are single parents with no income; some physically have no choice but to go back to work. I know that many cleaners are worried their clients will drop them for bigger companies if they don’t return. 

A lot of us are worried about our fitness too. Cleaning is hard work physically, and the muscles that I built up have all but disappeared! Coupled with the extra work that is likely with cleaners not having carried out the usual regular cleans,  I do hope clients realise that we’re not going to be able to whip around their homes in the usual hour or two.

I’m lucky that my husband still works, so we do have a regular, if much reduced, income. But I oscillate between both sides of the argument. After two months with no routine, I’m keen to go back to work and I know my clients need me. But what if I’m asymptomatic and I pass something on? 

What has become clear is how much people miss my company. I told one of my clients, who always leaves dishes stacked in the sink for my visit, that he could buy a dishwasher to see him through lockdown. After all, he has the space. He replied saying 'I’d rather pay and have your company once a week'. Since, I’ve been making sure that I ring him each week to check that he’s ok. I do miss them all! 

In fact, I've been checking in with all my clients to keep them updated about my situation. There’s one who hasn’t returned any of my messages, so I maybe won’t be going back to their house.

I’m aware that I am a cleaner doing a service, not your friend. But with my income suddenly stopping, it's been a difficult time for me. It does stand out when people make an effort to remember that I’m a person, too.

As told to Alice Hall

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