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Keeping Things Clean in a COVID World

Remember the early days of COVID? We were counting or singing the Alphabet Song to be certain we washed our hands long enough. Every surface we touched required a deep clean. Hand sanitizers and household disinfectants were nowhere to be found. And if toilet paper appeared on your shopping list, forget about it. The entire world suddenly needed to be sanitized…immediately!

Fortunately, things have settled down a bit and some things have returned to pre-pandemic normal. Of course, the scars of COVID will likely linger for years to come. Our heightened awareness of germs has driven much of the population to focus on cleanliness like never before.

But what does this new focus mean for cleaning companies?

A Tough Start

Like many businesses, COVID put the brakes on cleaning companies as the world shut down and stay-at-home mandates became the new normal.

Adrienne Parkes and Michael Leahy of Common Sense Cleaners experienced this firsthand. “There was an immediate shutdown of everything, and that lasted about six weeks,” said Parkes. “All we had during that time was commercial jobs. We had a few empty office buildings and one doctor’s office.”

The same was true for Tim Maloney of the Dirt Doctors. “Our downtime depended on what type of cleaning we were doing,” he recalled. “One major league client, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a short season, and most of the larger office buildings we handle had fewer people in them which meant less work for us.”

Despite these slowdowns, the cleaning business rebounded relatively quickly.

For Common Sense Cleaning—which focuses primarily on residences—the initial lull in business transformed into a boon. “After the first six weeks everything increased tenfold,” said Parkes. “We worked six days a week from last May 2020 until just this past January.”

Maloney’s focus on commercial clients followed a slightly different trajectory.

“When work slowed down, we picked up some new disinfecting-type jobs for smaller businesses,” he said. Now, Maloney’s business rivals its pre-pandemic days.

“I would say that we’ll probably finish out the year even better that we would have last year if COVID hadn’t been in the picture,” he said, adding that business continues to increase as more companies welcome employees back.

The Pittsburgh Pirates resuming a regular season schedule has helped, too.

“People in Pittsburgh are pretty loyal,” said Maloney. “As an independent company, that matters.”

Growing Need for Employees

For an industry already focused on cleanliness, implementing a plan to keep employees safe wasn’t difficult. Since disinfecting surfaces and working with cleaning chemicals is standard in this business, gloves were required before the pandemic.

“Basically, I used common sense in my approach,” said Maloney. “Mandates required masks to be worn when employees were around people and, of course, the glove rule was enforced—but no hazmat suits were necessary!”

In pre-pandemic days, Maloney’s company handled about 40 houses a week. That dropped to 12 during the early days of the pandemic but was back up to about 22 a week by summer 2020. The opportunity for picking up more residential business remains strong, but Maloney can’t find employees.

“People are spending more time in their homes and thinking more about cleaning,” said Maloney. “The challenge is finding people to do the job.”

With a business comprised of about 98 percent residential accounts, Common Sense Cleaning ran into the same problem. “We only have one employee,” said Parkes. “We’ve lost everyone else for various reasons.”

This lack of employees is what required Parkes and Leahy to work six days a week to keep up with demand while simultaneously running the business.

Hiring for residential accounts requires more than just being a detail-focused employee. “It’s a hard hire,” said Maloney. “Not only do we need the person to be detail-oriented, but being friendly is necessary, too, since homeowners are often present while the work is being done.”

“In the past several months we’ve had over 84 people schedule interviews and not show up,” added Parkes.

Stemming from a heightened awareness of cleanliness, residential cleaning jobs are expected to continue rising. The need for more qualified employees will also increase, making an already difficult industry even more challenging. While cleaning companies may have weathered COVID, how they’ll deal with its aftermath remains to be seen.

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