Cleaning services crushed amid virus; Hotels add new protocols

Danielle Starkey / Tahoe Daily Tribune
Forest Suites Resort in South Lake Tahoe has adjusted cleaning protocols.

When Camille Jacobsen looks at her calendar, it’s jarringly empty.

Jacobsen, who owns Camille’s Clean Inc., used to have a thriving housecleaning business with 18 people she could call on to clean as many as 50 homes.

Today, when her phone isn’t silent, it seems to be ringing only to let her know that someone wants to cancel a housecleaning appointment that was scheduled not for this week or this month, but for months from now.

“I still have things falling off my calendar for August and September,” she lamented. “I went from $10,000, $12,000 a month (for cleaning jobs) to nothing.”

The people who clean homes for her are independent contractors, and most are single moms. The work is appealing to them not just because of the flexible hours, but because “they make really good money,” said Jacobsen, who started Camille’s Clean in 2006.

“Whatever I charge, they get 50 to 75%,” she said.

She charges clients $150 to $450 to clean a house, depending on the size of the home. The bigger the home, the higher the percentage of the fee the cleaner collects.

“They can get in and out in two hours in some of the smaller places, tops six hours on the bigger ones, so they’re making anywhere between $35 and $40 an hour,” she said.

Another reason the single parents have given her for really appreciating the job is that they didn’t have to hire a babysitter or find day care; they got to bring their kids to work.

COVID-19 has upended that, however. Even if a parent and child were to wear the mask, gown, and other protective gear, there is still the challenge of keeping kids and extra-duty cleaning chemicals safely apart.

Beyond that, there is a small risk that touching a surface that harbors the virus and then touching your face could lead to an infection. According to the National Institutes of Health, the virus is detectable for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on stainless steel and plastic (though it may not be viable for that long).

Jacobsen said that when properties are permitted to open again, she won’t let any of her cleaners near one that hasn’t been vacant for 72 hours, which is consistent with guidelines given to her by Airbnb, which in turn was relying on guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other infectious disease experts.

She also is buying personal protective gear for them.

“At this point, I’m not doing anything until the travel ban is lifted,” she added. “I’ve lost some clients because some want me to clean their house now, and I tell them no, they have to clean up after themselves. It’s hard, because it’s really tempting. I’m the one who needs the money. But I don’t want anyone to get sick. I feel responsible for their lives.”

Jerry Bindel, general manager of Forest Suites Resort, said that nearly two-thirds of his property’s full-time staff had to be furloughed when the hotel was shuttered.

This week, however, Forest Suites got word that they’ll be getting money from the Paycheck Protection Program. The program gives forgivable loans to businesses to cover payroll, rent, utilities and other expenses within the 8-week period after the loan is made. Thanks to this news, they’re in the process of hiring back furloughed employees to work on projects in preparation for reopening and no one, so far, has declined the offer due to fears of contracting the virus, he said, but added, “We haven’t got all the call backs.”

The fact that Forest Suites offers full-time employees a benefit package that includes health insurance may make working there more alluring, especially when a pandemic has swept into the picture, he noted.

Cleaning and other staff will have to undergo training in new protocols. Cleaning staff will be told, for example, that they may enter the guests’ rooms right after they check out, but only to empty the trash can. They will have to wait an additional 48 hours before re-entering the room to clean it, Bindel said.

“We have corporate-wide standards for cleanliness that we’re required to adhere to (and they are) beyond the state’s standards,” he said. “It’s an absolutely new world we’re entering. Our cleanliness standards are going to rival those you see in hospitals.”

While restaurants and other businesses are subject to surprise visits from the county health department to make sure they’re following health and safety guidelines designed to protect both employees and patrons, nobody drops into a hotel or vacation home rental, though the county health department would visit if there were a complaint, said Bindel, who is chair of the South Lake Tahoe Tourism Improvement District.

Guests are certain to be more attentive to a property’s cleanliness as they begin to venture out, but they also may pay closer attention to cancellation policies.

Bindel said that Forest Suites is accepting reservations for stays that begin June 1 and beyond, but they’ve been down that road before — twice.

“Back in March, we thought we could open May 1,” he said. “Then, we pushed it to May 15, and we realized that wasn’t possible. Everyone has been really understanding.”

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