Today I am excited to share the first entry in what will hopefully become a series of guest blog posts by people who have a direct stake in platform-mediated service work (or in the platform economy more broadly conceived). This first contribution comes from J, an African American woman who was 27 when I interviewed her in New York City about her experiences with Handy – a cleaning and handyman platform operating in the United States, Canada, and the UK. This was August 2018, when J was still working with Handy. In the meantime, however, she has been deactivated and is exploring alternative options. J’s story in many ways resonates with the narratives shared by other Handy Pros during my fieldwork in NYC, all of which highlight the everyday opportunities and challenges of marketing one’s cleaning services via a platform company that promotes itself as an efficient matchmaker in markets for household services but exercises significantly more power over its freelance workforce than this notion would suggest. Previously, I have published a critical piece about the fees that Handy charges its Pros and the risks this may entail, but here the aim is to offer a space where a Handy Pro can relay her experiences with the platform in her own words. I hope that, by giving platform workers a voice and by inviting you to respond by adding comments and/or questions, this space will contribute to a public debate about the promises and perils of platform-mediated service work (in this case domestic cleaning) as it exists now and as it could or should exist in the near future.
I have over ten years of cleaning experience. I obtained an A.A.S. in Business Management, but couldn't find any work until I enrolled in a program called Back to Work [run by NYC’s Human Resources Administration], which gave me my first cleaning job. I started with a small company that had a contract with American Apparel stores. The salary was $9 per hour and I stayed with them until they went out of business. I then found a job with another small cleaning company which was off the books and paid $10 an hour. During that time, I worked for a woman who scammed me for almost $700. I took a huge loss from that and three months later I got hired at another small cleaning company, which was on the books and paid $11 an hour. I was climbing up the pay ladder little by little.
Six months later I became supervisor and got extremely close with the two bosses. I stayed in their personal apartments on weekends to prepare it for Airbnb guests. Other duties were distributing checks, dropping off rags to the dry cleaning, managing a five-person crew in a seventh-floor office building in SoHo and much more. I did everything for them but when I asked for a raise, they declined. Then one day I saw a street table promoting Handy, not to attract customers but to hire cleaners. I continued to have faith in my bosses so I didn't apply for Handy until a year later but when I did I got hired instantly. I chose to give Handy a shot because the starting pay was $15 an hour, which was way more than I ever made, plus I can set my own schedule. There was no interview, just an orientation and a background check.
I have worked for Handy off and on for about four years. The start-off pay was $15 an hour but they had other pay tiers that you would have to work hard to get, based off customer ratings and the amount of jobs you completed within a month. I went to $17 per hour in three weeks, then $20 an hour several days later. No matter how hard I worked, I never reached the $22 per hour tier. You would think the pay was excellent, but that's minus buying supplies constantly, including a suitable bag that's strong enough to carry a vacuum cleaner but small enough not to take up too much space on the train. I also purchased a smaller vacuum for my own comfort. You also have to pay for your own transportation and lunch. There were no reimbursements. Back in 2013 when I got hired, there was an orientation you had to attend and they provided you with supplies and a huge yellow Eureka vacuum for which they would take $150 out of your pay when you begin.
The first few years of working for Handy was smooth, but I was working so hard and not eating well, not getting enough rest and I wasn't doing much in terms of hobbies because I was always working. Handy was beginning to take a toll on me. Carrying 50 pounds of supplies everywhere and not feeling well was a disaster. Yes, you set your own schedule using the app and you can pick your own jobs, but when you see $140 for a 7-hour job tomorrow and you know you need the money, they got you! Anyhow, I took a small break and then went back. By the time I went back a lot had changed. You had to start your cleaning record over each month, which meant that instead of seeing the 500 jobs you did so far, you're back at zero after 28 days and if your recent ratings dropped you would end up back in the $15 an hour tier. They also had GPS so they can tell where you were at, and they had a clock in/clock out system. What I didn't like was that more customers were beginning to abuse the service by claiming bad experiences with other cleaners. There were several times I would travel two boroughs away for a huge job that got cancelled while I was on my way or when I was already at the customer’s door. The rule was customers didn't have to pay if they cancelled. Then they started paying us the amount of the job as long you clocked in on time at the location. Several months later they changed it so that you got paid only one hour for customer cancellations. On the other hand, if a cleaner cancelled it was a $0 charge if seven days in advance, a $10 charge if three to five days in advance, a $30 charge for two days in advance, a $40 charge for a same day cancellation, and a $50 charge for a no show. Two no shows and you would get deactivated from the Handy platform.
Overall, working with Handy was a decent experience in the beginning but it quickly turned sour. There were absolutely no benefits because we were independent contractors. There were too many fees, no office number to call for emergencies, and our pay went from daily to weekly. Handy was good for the short term, but not good for the long term and there is no opportunity for advancement. I was getting tired of Handy and began to look for work somewhere else. One day my credit card expired and my phone bill didn't get paid because the payment got declined. For that whole day I didn't have a phone unless I had WiFi. Unable to clock in to each job even though I completed all of them, by the end of the night they thought I didn’t show up for any of my jobs that day and I was deactivated from the Handy platform. I was a little sad but I also took it as a sign that it was time for me to find something better.