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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Dirty job

It's time for the annual rite of spring: the big clean. Some are cleaning their way through the house themselves, perhaps even finding it therapeutic. But more Americans than ever are hiring someone to clean up after them — year round.

As a Chicago Tribune article put it: "We're becoming a nation that won't deal with our own dirt. ... No longer do we need to be rich — or under 5 — to have someone else picking up after us."

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 1999 that between 14 percent and 18 percent of all households employed outside cleaners. An independent researcher found a 53 percent increase from 1995 to 1999 in the number of households that employ a cleaner once a month or more.

For the elderly, such help may be a necessity. For others it's a matter of priorities, freeing time for other tasks or leisure.

"For the church, it's a justice issue," says Jean Martensen, ELCA Commission for Women. "It's largely a women's field. And they're often the most vulnerable. Many are new immigrants who have no employment choice except household labor, often because they don't speak English."

Martensen offers these guidelines for those who employ household help: respect the work and the worker, pay fair wages, provide a clear list of duties and stick to them, ask about health and pension benefits, and express thanks.

"If you're in an area where many people employ such a service, tap into the resources of the congregation," she said. "Collective action could ensure sound labor practice and higher standards."

Such cooperation does happen. In San Francisco, groups of women banded together via the church to make sure they get fair wages and benefits. In Los Angeles, Latina housecleaners formed a co-op called the Miracle Workers.


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