Charlotte Hays lives in Adams Morgan and for years used a maid from the MaidPro agency. One day, MaidPro and the maid parted ways. The maid asked Charlotte if she could still clean for her. Then Charlotte received an e-mail from the local MaidPro franchise owner. He suspected that Charlotte might have been approached by a former employee who was in violation of her non-compete agreement, i.e., Charlotte’s former maid.
“Although situations like this are a rarity here at MaidPro it is very alarming and not tolerated,” he wrote, adding: “If any of our clients wish to hire one of our staff members we do have a referral fee. This fee is $2,500, which is used towards recruiting, training, and replacing the staff member.”
Charlotte was incensed. Were maids required to sign non-compete agreements, like software engineers or late-night talk show hosts? She liked her former maid, but she wasn’t sure how worldly the woman was when it came to legal documents.
And that e-mail — pay us $2,500 — also seemed vaguely threatening to Charlotte.
I spoke with James Doyle of MaidPro’s franchise headquarters in Boston.“If you want to hire one of our cleaners directly, there is a fee associated with that,” he said. “We go through a background check, personal assessment, training. All those things do incur a cost.”
I asked whether the customer was under any legal obligation to pay $2,500. “The client is by no means required to pay this fee, because we don’t have a contract with the client,” James said.
MaidPro does, however, have a contract with the maid. It includes a non-compete clause, which I’ve found is pretty much standard in this business.
“It’s in place to prevent the unrequested solicitation of our customers,” James said. He said trade secrets also are involved.
Do the maids understand the contract? James said the language is straightforward. “Both parties are pretty clear what’s happening,” he said.
I sympathize with both sides. A contract is a contract. However, I don’t think it’s really an issue of training or trade secrets. Rather, it’s that agencies such as MaidPro do all of the expensive advertising that gets the maid in a customer’s house in the first place.
But to fire a shot across the client’s bow with an empty threat that has no legal weight?
“The wording of that [e-mail] could certainly be improved,” James said. “The tone could have been better.”
“The Potomac rate.” Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard that expression.
What is it? It’s what happens when a plumber, electrician or other service provider pulls up to your house, sees that you live in a nice part of town, figures you earn a decent salary and decides to charge you more than what he’d charge someone who lives in a different Zip code.
Does that really happen?
“I think most firms don’t do that,” said Robert Krughoff, president of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook. “But there are firms of all kinds.”
Some firms, Robert said, “try to squeeze every penny out of a customer, and one way to do that is to, first of all, have flexible pricing and, second of all, to pass judgment on the customer based on something they see. And a home is certainly such a thing.”
The challenge with evaluating the cost of a service is that it isn’t like buying a gallon of milk. “It’s not like going in and seeing a price on a shelf,” Robert said. “People have to shop around.”
Getting estimates from multiple companies is critical, he said. His organization does undercover price comparisons and often finds a huge swing between the lowest and highest quote for the same job. For example, when it rated plumbers in 2009, the job I needed done — reseating a leaking toilet — had a range of $70 to $347. I paid $317.
Here’s the real kicker: “We find no relationship between quality and price in local service markets,” Robert said.
I would love to hear from contractors who have charged the Potomac rate. I promise to keep your name out of my column. I’d just like to get some insight into your thinking.
I guess, in Virginia, it would be “the McLean rate.” In Washington, it would be “the Georgetown rate.” For the record, I live in Silver Spring.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.