Sometimes all it takes is a willingness to try when faced with an intractable problem.
In his own little way, Aaron Seyedian is doing just that. The 31-year-old runs Well-Paid Maids, a 17-employee (himself included) cleaning service “explicitly dedicated to paying a living wage.”
“I had this idea kicking around,” said Seyedian, who like me is a Washington D.C.-area transplant from upstate New York. “It is important to recognize in some way that there is a policy failure, which is that people don’t make enough money to live on. [The] business was a way to barge in and try to correct that.”
Well-Paid Maids pays its cleaning staff $17 to $19 an hour, which is well above the national median of $11.43 for house cleaners and the Washington-area median of $13.12. Staffers also get 22 days a year of paid vacation.
In addition, Seyedian offers a zero-deductible health plan, which costs about $8,000 per worker, and an employer-paid disability plan. He said a 401(k) retirement plan is somewhere in the future.
The company grossed $600,000 last year, which allowed the owner to collect a $90,000 salary after all his costs.
“Everyone is full-time, and if you do that math, people are making around $35,000,” Seyedian said. “That’s not horrible. It’s enough to live on, but not high on the hog.”
Though wages have been slow-growing since the Great Recession, they have picked up in recent years — especially for those at the bottom. This is partly due to a minimum wage movement playing out in recent years, according to a Washington Post analysis of Labor Department data. More than 20 states raised their minimums at the start of 2020, affecting nearly 7 million workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
The wage gains are also attributable to one of the lowest unemployment levels in decades, driving up individual earnings as companies compete for fewer workers. The U.S. poverty rate, too, has been declining, although more than 41 million Americans still live in poverty, according to 2018 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Well-Paid Maids charges $159 to clean a typical one-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which takes about three hours. That’s $70 more than the $89 that some cleaners charge.
Well-Paid Maids is “the most expensive cleaning company in both Washington and the Boston markets,” he said.
So who pays for that?
“It’s people who don’t have a lot of time, make a lot of money, don’t want the ‘nanny tax’ thing and want the job done right.”
The service also appeals to what he calls mission-minded customers who want to support a company that pays a living wage.
“Some customers feel uncomfortable that they employ people who don’t make enough money to live on,” Seyedian said. “Since it is not in your power to change the living wage overnight, by us doing this is a way for people to do something voluntarily that is at least in line with their views.”
Well-Paid Maids dispatches one person per cleaning job, so the hiring process is rigorous. It includes a phone interview, a reference check, a trial cleaning and background checks. One out of every 15 applicants ends up on staff.
“We are hiring people to do a job with no supervision,” Seyedian said. “They have to do it well. This costs customers a lot of money. We can’t take chances.”
Seyedian is married with one child. He graduated from George Washington University in 2009 with a degree in international affairs. After working as a consultant, he and his wife were headed to Botswana with the Peace Corps, but they had to drop out for personal reasons at the last minute.
That’s when he decided it was time to act on his ambition to start a living-wage business.
“I thought it would be more fun than consulting, and I could do some good,” Seyedian said.
First, he reserved the wellpaidmaids.com internet domain name on GoDaddy for $10. He shelled out $5,000 to build a website, get a business license and incorporate as a limited liability corporation. He began advertising online on sites such as Prince of Petworth (now Popville) and on neighborhood internet listings where people troll for small businesses. He found employees on Craigslist.
The 2½-year-old business is a lean operation. His apartment in Takoma Park, Maryland, doubles as his office. He recently hired a growth manager at $42,000 a year (plus commission) to expand clients and sales. Revenue doubled from $300,000 in 2018 to $600,000 last year. He expects to surpass $1 million in revenue in 2020, which will help cover a flurry of hires in recent months. Seyedian has one person running the day-to-day operations.
Seyedian said individual labor costs come to nearly $43 an hour. That includes the hourly wage, health care (including dental and vision), and Uber rides to ferry cleaners to their jobs. He said a $159 basic cleaning, after expenses, provides him with a $33 profit.
The company has booked more than 6,000 cleaning jobs, for 1,500 customers, since its founding. About 40 percent of his customers are repeats, and 10 percent have cleanings scheduled monthly, weekly or every other week.
The self-described left-of-center guy is hoping that Well-Paid Maids succeeds and points the way toward policies that improve the life of the working class and soften the edges of capitalism.
“I don’t think the government should be making SpaghettiOs,” he said. “But we have a very under-regulated economy, especially in terms of wages and benefits. There are policy solutions to ameliorate that. Hopefully, I am demonstrating those policies can work.”