Eighteen months ago, Deborah Woodard had never cleaned a house besides her own. Hoping only to make some "funny money" to fund her love of crafts after being laid off from her HR job, Woodard launched Sparkle Squad with her daughter and daughter-in-law in Owasso, Oklahoma. They started with nothing more than Woodard's vacuum cleaner, the cleaning products from under her sink, and $60 of additional supplies from Lowe's. By February, the business had an office, four employees in addition to the three owners, and 65 recurring clients. It did $100,000 its first year.

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The cancellations began on March 16: 16 clients in one week, worth $1,800 in monthly revenue. The next week's losses totaled $1,700. Some of Sparkle Squad's clients "are elderly and want to decrease the traffic in and out of their home," Woodard says. "Others are scared, not knowing what will happen as far as money. A couple went on spring break and are quarantining." The company, which Woodard says had been on track to make $175,000 to $200,000 this year, has instead had to lay off two employees and shift the other two to part-time.

Hygiene, ironically, is at once Covid-19's nemesis and its victim. The pandemic has made sanitation more important than ever; it has become routine to mention cleaners as being on the front lines of the battle. But the cleaning industry, which employs more than 3 million people in the U.S., is also singularly vulnerable to coronavirus, which closes businesses and incites homeowners to keep others out at all costs. 

The cleaners are unusually vulnerable as well. "You have 25 clients and then you have 18 and then four, and all of a sudden how do you pay the bills?" says Kevin Reynolds, co-founder of Handmaid Cleaning, a six-employee company in Walla Walla, Washington.

Fear and confusion

Kevin Reynolds and his wife and co-founder, Grace, possess singular insights into how this pandemic has affected cleaners' businesses. In 2018, the couple launched the American House Cleaners Association (AHCA), a nonprofit dedicated to raising the profile and dignity of the profession, which mostly employs women, many of them soloists. On Facebook, the Reynoldses also preside over a worldwide community of cleaners almost 20,000 strong. Now, interspersed with the posts about bleach-to-water ratios and pet-friendly disinfectants, they encounter stories of heartbreak, fear, and confusion.

"For some cleaners, their services are blowing up and they are getting a lot of new clients," Grace Reynolds says. "But some solo cleaners say they have lost all their clients. They do so much good in their communities, and they will probably end up shutting down."

Roughly 30 percent of the businesses in the Handmaid Cleaning Community are closing or fear they may have to close, Reynolds says. Some live with a family member whom they don't want to risk infecting. Others worry the government will penalize them for operating. The Reynoldses have tried to help those members understand their states' rules. 

There's also a segment that believes housecleaning services should cease altogether during the crisis to avoid any chance of spreading Covid-19. Reynolds has no patience for that argument. "If that's your attitude, you shouldn't have a maid service in the first place," she says. "We know what we're doing. There are a lot of really bad diseases we could have been spreading around if we didn't."

Strategizing ways to hang on

Most cleaners, though, have a more prosaic problem: cancellations. In March, Paula and Brandi McCullum, the married owners and sole employees of Three Peaks Cleaning in Bend, Oregon, lost 75 percent of their commercial and residential jobs, costing their small business about $3,400. The loss would have been $1,000 more, but several clients followed the growing public call to pay cleaners even for work not done. "Last week I cried quite a bit," Paula says. "But then you get over the shock and have to figure out how to move forward."

The McCullums have been in business nine years and expect all their clients to return. But they worry about hanging on until then. They don't think they'd qualify for unemployment and don't want to be saddled with loan payments, so for now they plan to subsist on their savings. (The National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that advocates for house cleaners, nannies, and home health care employees, has created a fund to provide $400 in one-time emergency assistance to qualified workers.)

The Reynoldses are concerned that some cleaners believe they can just sit home and wait out the crisis. They're encouraging businesses that can afford to do so to step up their marketing. That's what Sparkle Squad is doing. Woodard is collecting data to pitch dental, eyewear, and chiropractic offices, as well as hair salons that will have to get hygienic fast when they reopen. The company just began offering a free cleaning for one elderly or immunocompromised person a week.

But that strategy hasn't worked out for the McCullums. The couple wanted to use their unwelcome down time to help the community and engender good will. So Three Peaks Cleaning offered free services to two nonprofits nominated by visitors to its Facebook page. One did not respond. The other preferred to wait. The company also offered a free floor scrub to one of its regular commercial clients and was turned down. "We can't even give away cleanings," Paula says.

Putting a shine on it

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To better advise their community, Kevin and Grace Reynolds are seeking clarity from the top. The AHCA has generated 56,000 emails and collected 3,000 signatures on a petition asking the Centers for Disease Control and every state governor to lay out standardized guidelines and protocols for the industry. "We are asking to speak with them to help our industry use the right products and protective gear to effectively neutralize the virus," Grace says.

As for the Reynolds's own company, the crisis has produced mixed results. Handmaid Cleaning has lost six or seven residential clients but landed at least one large commercial account sanitizing the common areas in a large condominium for people 55 and over. The property owner has eight or nine similar facilities around Washington State, and the couple hopes for a shot at those. 

They also believe that, post-virus, the future for cleaners is bright. "For younger families, for Millennials, residential cleaning has become more an essential than a luxury, and that hasn't changed," Kevin says. "Within the next few years this industry is slated to skyrocket."