Aaron Seyedian is running an experiment.
He has launched a service to provide housecleaning services in the D.C. area and is asking residents to pay as much as $139 to have a spotless one-bedroom apartment.
That’s more than many of his competitors charge — at least $30 more, in one case. But Seyedian is making the case that this is not excessively expensive, given that he’s offering his workers something other services are not — a living wage. His newly launched Well-Paid Maids is giving workers $16 an hour, plus benefits.
The question is: Will consumers cough up the extra money if they know it will help some of the area’s lowest-paid workers?
For Seyedian, this is a moral issue.
“It’s just immoral for people to have to panic every time the rent is due, to wonder how they’re going to pay for their groceries, or whether they can buy their kid a pair of shoes,” he said.
The minimum wage mandated by the federal government is $7.25 an hour. In the District, it’s $12.50. The city also requires government contractors and any business receiving $100,000 or more in assistance to offer a living wage of $13.95, an amount Seyedian called “artificially low.”
But in a city where the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000 a month, the money doesn’t go far. Seyedian is hoping that enough people share his concerns to pay a little more to provide workers with a little more.
Seyedian began offering cleaning services in August with a staff of three, including him. He turned to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to help him arrive at the $16-an-hour rate for workers. The calculator sets the living wage for a single adult in the D.C. area at $15.71.
Critics of living-wage laws argue that the increased cost will reduce employment opportunities for low-skilled workers: Businesses forced to pay higher salaries and benefits will do so by reducing their workforce, according to opponents.
But supporters of a living wage argue that the living wage is necessary for tackling the country’s income inequality.
Several companies already emphasize the need for raising the minimum wage by paying above the current legal requirement. The ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, for example, has a livable wage policy, setting the hourly wage for an entry-level job at $16.92. Ikea, the Sweden-based global furniture retailer, pegs its wages to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator and in 2015 raised wages for its U.S. retail employees, basing minimum pay on the living wage for each jurisdiction where its U.S. stores are located.
A mission-driven man
Seyedian, who has a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown, said he has always been drawn to working for organizations with a focus on positive social impact.
“For me, it’s been a process of going from mission-driven organization to mission-driven organization to find what feels right,” the 28-year-old said.
He spent two years as a consultant for the World Bank and most recently worked as a consultant for Censeo, a firm that focuses on helping mission-driven organizations, government, higher education institutions and nonprofit groups operate more effectively.
He quit that job this year in anticipation of going to Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer with his fiancee, but an unexpected health issue scuttled that plan. He didn’t want to go back to his old office job, so he turned his energy to starting the cleaning business.
The domestic-work industry, which includes housekeepers, nannies and elder-care providers, has sometimes been an underground, informal cash economy operating in the shadows and is often excluded from labor law protections, said Palak Shah, social innovations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It was only in 2010 that New York passed the nation’s first law guaranteeing workplace rights for domestic workers.
In Britain, the Living Wage Foundation, which campaigns for fair pay, has accredited close to 3,500 employers as living-wage employers. There is nothing similar in the United States, although there are several living-wage initiatives throughout the country, including in Ithaca, N.Y.; La Plata County, Colo.; and Asheville, N.C.
Seyedian wants to one day see a national living-wage accreditation mechanism here and thinks that, if successful, Well-Paid Maids can serve as a case study for other businesses.
“For 30 years or so, there’s been this steady drumbeat of seeing workers as expenses, something to be minimized,” Shah said. Now, “we’re beginning to really see employees as assets, not expenses.
“It would be our objective to entrench that attitude into the future of the cleaning market,” she said.
Employees or contractors?
Home-cleaning services in the D.C. region typically pay closer to the city’s minimum wage. For example, Super Maids DC starts its maids at $12.50 an hour, and the rate can go up to 30 percent above the minimum wage, according to James Dantae, the company’s operations manager. Ecoverde Maids pays its cleaners up to $15 an hour, according to its website.
Then there are the gig economy’s on-demand home-cleaning services, such as Neatso and Handy, where workers are not employees but independent contractors who receive no benefits, wage protections or guarantee of work.
Paying the employees at Well-Paid Maids above the going market rate increases business costs, Seyedian said. And he expects that his efforts will set the business back from reaching a point of viability by “at least a couple of months.”
But Seyedian said he has a hunch that there is an unmet demand for living-wage goods and services he can tap into — and so far, he said, the preliminary results have been promising.
In the business’s first week of operations, Well-Paid Maids had scheduled at least two cleanings per day and had more than 30 customers schedule services, with some booking multiple appointments, Seyedian said.
It was especially encouraging, Seyedian said, that so many customers were willing to try out a brand-new cleaning service that at that point had no reviews, recommendations or references.
“For people to kind of make that leap just because they believe in what we’re doing. . . . I think that’s a good sign,” he said.
One of those customers was Jeremy Cockerham. The 25-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident recently booked a cleaning appointment for the three-bedroom apartment he shares with housemates.
“I’m a big fan of fair pay for fair work,” said Cockerham, who plans on using the cleaning service about once a month, splitting the $199 cost with his housemates.
“The marginal effect of spending that tiny shred more is negligible,” he added.
For Erin Scheithe, 37, using Well-Paid Maids meant taking away the sense of guilt that she associates with hiring a maid, knowing that she could do it herself at no cost.
“It was kind of a win-win . . . and it made me feel better,” Scheithe said.
Seyedian is hoping to reach a point where he can hire a staff capable of doing 10 cleanings a day. And he’s brainstorming about how to expand the business, either by starting services in cities such as Seattle or San Francisco or getting into other low-wage services, like landscaping.
“If this customer base [for living-wage maid services] exists, it probably exists for lawn care and other adjacent services,” he said.
Ultimately, he wants to see the living wage become a widely accepted standard.
“Success would be everyone being paid a living wage at the end of the day,” Seyedian said. “I’m interested in seeing how this business can make that happen.”