The most tenacious freelancers of the new West
Inside a housekeeping ‘cluster’ that stays nimble to provide for its workers
Between the prosperity of ski towns such as Aspen and Snowmass, in their nooks and crannies, the grit that is the working class conducts its business.
For many, the fantastical, idealized mountain-town overcoat that Aspen flaunts is not a financial destination to reach, but an opportunity to improve their own reality, just down the valley. There’s Wall Street — and then there’s Julietta’s WhatsApp chat with her team.
From nothing, something
Julietta wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for her commute to Aspen. (Editor’s note: We are using pseudonyms for sources who agreed to speak regardless of immigration status.) She lets the dogs out, loads the car with chemicals, rags, brooms and vacuums. Much of the trailer park below the mesas of western Garfield County is already active this early, hoping to leave for work before highways get too congested.
The night before, she sent out a text, telling co-workers what time they should expect her arrival at their house. Six-thirty. She’s always early. She picks up her team from their homes, each waiting by their windows with their lunch bags in hand for the moment Julietta arrives. Everyone snuggles in the SUV, says good morning to one another, prays to themselves and sets off.
Julietta, the orchestrator of the operation, drives to their destination. Paula sits in the passenger seat. First chair. She makes conversation with those in the back. Asks about their husbands, kids and animals. Periods of silence come here and there, with all the women staring out the window. Another makes a joke. They laugh. They gossip.
Paula used to work at a restaurant in Rifle. One day, a man noticed her cleaning the dining room between lunch and dinner rushes. He asked the manager if Paula cleaned houses. Paula, not the one to let an opportunity slip, confirmed that she did.
Julietta’s story is similar. She came from the hotel industry, having worked as a maid. Eventually, her work caught the attention of people who wanted service at their own homes. Julietta obliged.
The two live in Rifle in separate neighborhoods. When Julietta needed help, she asked her friends if they or anyone they knew would clean houses. The word spread through different social circles until word got to Paula, who expressed her interest.
Most new housekeepers get into the business in such ways. On a whim or recommendation. They hear about a team requiring help and they tag along for the day. Usually, it takes only one outing for Julietta to determine if the new hire is worth having for the long term. The higher quality of work a new housekeeper does, the more likely they get invited for other jobs at a later date. Before long, someone who started because they had a free Saturday transforms into a dependable worker who makes the bulk of their income cleaning houses.
Between Julietta’s close network of seven workers, she could think of at least 56 homes and properties they had recently serviced. Before the start of the pandemic, Julietta and her daughter juggled eight houses over the course of a calendar year. By the middle of the winter of 2020-21, she was cleaning 24 spaces, including units rented out on Airbnb or other online short-term rental platforms. Business boomed enough to warrant cleaning days on weekends just to fit in new houses. Housekeepers such as Julietta found it beneficial to share their client network with friends turned co-workers. Clusters of housekeepers formed in response to increased demand to ease the workload.
Any house may need cleaning two times a week, once every 15 days, every time the owner returns from a trip, or every time the homeowner completes an Airbnb rental. Some properties are privately owned, while others are motels. Some are gyms, others are office spaces. Each woman in Julietta’s network is the point of contact for seven or eight properties. Together, they keep each other employed year-round.
More demand for services
The residential boom in Aspen and other western Colorado resort destinations is moving at an astounding pace. According to last year’s Mountain Migration Report, from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG) and Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST), home prices in five surveyed rural-resort counties have reached a record high, with market rents increasing between 20% and 40% in one year.
New buyers and existing part-time residents report higher average incomes than full-time residents. Nearly three-quarters of the newcomers and 80% of part-time residents surveyed said they have annual incomes exceeding $150,000. By comparison, 40% of full-time residents reported annual incomes of more than $150,000.
Before the pandemic, according to the survey, new buyers of second homes stayed in their mountain-resort properties for an average of approximately 2.5 months out of the year. In 2021, that number increased to 8.8 months. Existing part-time residents reported increasing their cumulative length of stay to 4.1 months from 3.6 months.
This translates into more demand for services — for landscapers and cooks, house cleaners and chauffeurs — from these private homes.
According to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, private household employment in Pitkin County increased 9.5% from 2010 to 2019 — from 252 employees to 276. The count dropped in 2020 to 266, and data is not yet available for 2021.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment counted 2,260 housekeeping jobs in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties in 2020, down from 2,340 in 2018. That makes housekeeping the largest job classification in the tri-county region.
Status rarely comes up
Part of Julietta’s journey was learning what kind of business she wanted to operate. How will she interact with her co-workers? How will she interact with her clients? For her, there was a steep learning curve to her venture. Coupled with language barriers, navigating client relationships can prove difficult for an independent housekeeper.
“Language was the first and largest obstacle,” she said in an interview in Spanish. “I’ll tell you that the first couple of days, I cried because I worked without understanding (the language). It was one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. Over time, I learned, and now I feel victorious in what I’ve accomplished. … I think it’s a victory for me because I came to this country with no English.”
Among the Latina housekeepers of the valley, a large portion of them are living in the country illegally, despite having lived in the tri-county region for decades.
Now 55, Julietta reflects on her journey.
“I come from Mexico,” she said. “I studied until sixth grade. I learned very little. I came to the U.S. without speaking a word of English. I never used a computer in Mexico. I had to learn different apps and forms of payment. In reality, I had to learn so many things that I didn’t know prior (to starting) housekeeping. I can tell you I truly started from nothing.”
Many of these women immigrated to the United States with close to nothing. They take solace in knowing that their co-workers, riding in the car with them for hours a day, had similar experiences. Even with a shared background, status rarely comes up — in the car or at work.
“The truth is,” Julietta said, “I’m afraid. I’ve told none of my clients that I’m undocumented out of fear. It’s not about me. It’s also about keeping the team employed. Sometimes, clients ask me when I’m taking a trip to visit Mexico, and I lie to them and tell them I’m going soon. We don’t talk about immigration status.”
All across the tri-county region, these women travel together, always a mixed team of whomever might be available that day and time. Some, such as Julietta and Paula, learned new technology, communication methods, business practices, tax code and scheduling methods to create a network of trusted individuals who empower one another to make a living and take great pride in doing so. There are no business cards or digital marketing strategies. Instead, their whole business relies on the quality of their work through word of mouth.
“We speak with the job we do, not with our words,” Julietta said. “Sometimes, English isn’t that necessary. The quality of my work spoke for me. I speak some English now, but back when I first started, I understood quickly that people wanted the job done, not my ability to speak English.”
Danger is a part of the job
Paula and Julietta know that their work isn’t glamorous. They work long hours, clean strange houses and deal with the turbulent Colorado weather, especially during the winter.
Teressa, who has worked in housekeeping for more than 10 years, often joins Julietta for work. Teressa’s children have grown and left the house, leaving her to do housekeeping work without scheduling problems. This makes Teressa a dependable worker and thus a regular on Julietta’s team. She knows firsthand the sacrifices that housekeepers make every day.
“I know people that go from Rifle to Aspen on the bus to do housekeeping,” Teressa said in an interview in Spanish. “They leave for Aspen when the bus first comes in the morning and take the last bus back home. Imagine how many sacrifices those people make. A lot of us have the privilege of having our own car, but some don’t. Yet, they still get the job done.”
In August, Teressa fell from the top of a flight of stairs at a home in Aspen. At 54, she was slow to get up. A gash opened above her left brow, requiring nine stitches. Her eye was bruised orange and purple. The next day, she sat passenger on the way to Aspen for work with a wad of cotton over her cut in case it bled. She wore a baseball cap to hide the injury.
“I said nothing because I don’t have health care and I didn’t want to open a can of worms. I went to the hospital and I’ll see the full bill later,” she said.
Danger is part of the job. All the women recognize this, which is why they are careful at work, but accidents such as Teressa’s are inevitable. The financial impact that comes with the job can be burdensome.
“The accident she had, she’ll never pay what the hospital bill will be with the amount she made cleaning that day,” Julietta said. “How many more hours will she have to work to pay off the bill? We are always putting ourselves in danger. We’re older and we’re without a safety net if something happens. It might be an accident at work or on the drive to our clients. There is still so much uncertainty.”
Paid time off, maternity leave, health coverage and other workers’ rights are far from obtainable through freelance housekeeping. Instead, the workers’ luxury is financial stability, flexible weekly scheduling, Spanish-speaking co-workers and a sense of job ownership. It’s nice to get these perks, but sobering accidents such as Teressa’s are reminders of what remains out of reach.
“A sense of security is for people that can afford it, those that make substantial amounts of money,” Teressa said. “As workers, we need to be protected. Those of us that work in the worst conditions, we can’t afford coverage. How much do I have to work to pay off my injury? A year? Two? God only knows.”
Though minimal, benefits to their profession are worth the hurdles they jump through every time they set out to work. With many of these women aging into their 60s, this industry, without expanded employee benefits such as health care and retirement plans, provides an off-ramp from a lifetime of perpetual work and exhaustion to a place where they can make the rules and decisions regarding their labor.
“People see us as housewives. She’s the wife of so-and-so, they might say,” Teressa said. “She just cleans houses. But (we) grab our cars, rags and chemicals and start a company. From nothing.”
Aspen Journalism covers social justice in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
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