It's a dirty job--and entrepreneurs want to do it

October 31, 1990|By Michael K. Burns

When the sun goes down, Joe Covert packs up his old Chevy with cleaning supplies and goes to work sweeping floors, emptying trash cans, scrubbing restrooms -- and patiently building up his own business.

A janitor with a dream, the 49-year-old Elkridge man hopes to be hiring other moonlighters soon to do the dirty jobs that he takes on each night as new owner of a commercial cleaning franchise.

"I certainly don't want to be doing this for a long time," he said, as he retrieved a filled wastebasket in an optician's shop. "But I'll do what needs to be done to get this business going, until we can hire people to do the new accounts."

For now, Mr. Covert is honing his skills at polishing tiles and dusting desks into the wee hours six days a week, his solitary routine occasionally broken when his wife and daughter join him on his rounds.

He is, however, not alone in seeking his fortune in cleaning services.

Over the next decade, the $30 billion-a-year commercial cleaning industry will create nearly 600,000 new jobs, according to the Labor Department, making it one of the fastest growing areas of employment in the nation.

Most of the workers will be part-timers, working in their off hours to supplement their incomes from main jobs or to add to the full-time earnings of a spouse.

Barbara Butler works six hours each night cleaning a Baltimore County office building to supplement her family's income. "It's not toohard, because I do this at home, and I can rely on the money to help out," she said.

Her children no longer live at home, and she said she was looking for steady night work to fit in with part-time baby-sitting during the day.

"I like coming here," Mrs. Butler said. "The people who work here in the building are nice; that's a very good thing about this job."

She is one of the 17 part-timers employed by Paul Johnson, who started his own cleaning business last year.

"There's no shortage of dirt out there. . . . There's a high demand for this service," said Mr. Johnson, a former marketing specialist who expects to be managing more than 200 employees within a few years. "It's more recession-proof than most businesses."

With heavy competition, from individual entrepreneurs to multinational enterprises, the key to getting and keeping contracts is to hire reliable people and to maintain service relentlessly, Mr. Johnson said.

Commercial cleaning rates typically are set by industrywide standard manuals and do not vary by much, he said. The high turnover among contractors results mainly from deficient service, said.

"You have to keep inspecting, filling in for absent people, doing the special floor [polishing, shampooing] jobs yourself," he said. "This will never be a 9-to-5 job for me, or for the people who work for me."

For the workers, it also won't be a job that pays fringe benefits, such as health insurance or pensions; the small companies say they can't make a profit if they pay benefits. But the workers can earn a decent wage, $6 to $8 an hour, for largely unskilled labor that is usually not physically demanding.

"There are many people out there who are hard-working but just can't make enough at their job to make ends meet -- for the car, the rent, the needs of their kids, or just some money for savings," Mr. Johnson said. "That's the type of person we'll get, not someone who needs a full-time main job."

The demand for small commercial cleaning services is fed by the tendency of companies to do away with in-house maintenance staffs and contract with other businesses for support services to hold down costs and administrative burdens.

That trend disturbs some, who see full-time jobs that provide crucial benefits such as health insurance being eliminated and replaced with a growing army of low-cost part-timers who work without a social safety net.

"What we're creating is a secondary work force that we all eventually will have to pay for," said John Zalusky, an AFL-CIO economist. "They receive no benefits, and when they're old enough to retire, somebody is going to have to pay for those costs."

About three-quarters of the estimated 37 million Americans without health insurance are workers with such jobs and their families, he noted.

The part-time, rapid-turnover work force in the cleaning field is also of concern to labor unions that are active in organizing janitors.

But the vast majority of the estimated 200 cleaning businesses in the Baltimore area are truly small businesses, mostly mom-and-pop concerns that displace no one except the last small-business contractor and lack the permanent, full-time work force that attracts union interest. Their clients' buildings or offices are usually too small to attract the bigger fish in the cleaning industry.

Most of Joe Covert's accounts are small businesses or branch banks that became dissatisfied with the previous cleaners; none employed a staff janitor. And Mr. Covert has lost only one account because of his prices, when a shaky business had to slash expenses.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.