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Hey Workers! Clean up My Mess!

Cleaning up messes is a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it, right? But just who has “gotta do it?” Who are these invisible workers? Have you ever looked at messes from a cleaner’s perspective? Perspective-taking is a critical part of developing a sociological imagination. In this post Sarah Nell argues that by learning to take the perspective of others, you can understand and appreciate them more as workers, citizens, and human beings.

Hotel House Keeping

Most likely, someone cleans the spaces you frequent: classrooms, dorm rooms, cafeterias, shopping malls, and so forth. But do you see them? Do you know who empties your trash and who mops the floor? Who replaces the toilet paper roll and who scrubs the toilets? Who changes the light bulbs and cleans up unexpected messes like vomit, broken glass, or spilled liquid? Depending upon where you live, this person is probably a racial minority and is also likely to be a woman. Do you know her name or anything about her? Have you ever thanked her or spoken to her? I ask you this because of something I observed recently while in Las Vegas for an ironically located sociology conference. Before you continue, I want you to take the perspective of others by imagining yourself as the workers in these stories.

So, I was walking through a casino in the elegant Bellagio hotel. Up ahead I saw a Latina janitor reluctantly posing with her broom and mop while an obviously drunk white woman hanged on her, smiling, while her husband took a picture. On the floor below them, there was broken glass and a soppy mess of spilled beverage. The white woman behaved as if the middle aged Latina janitor was part of her tourist experience, expecting her to clean up after her, but also to amuse her.

The white woman behaved as if the middle aged Latina janitor as part of her tourist experience, expecting her to clean up after her, but also to amuse her.

I thought about how the janitor felt and how often this sort of thing happened. In a town like Vegas, it probably happens a lot. When I checked into my hotel at Caesars Palace the clerk told me that my room wasn’t ready yet because it was “very dirty.” I was sure a fancy hotel like Caesars Palace was not filthy-dirty, but rather, messy-dirty – destroyed by careless tourists who were living it up Vegas-style. I thought about the scene from The Hangover that shows an obscenely trashed room with no consideration of the low-paid housekeeper (whose pay is not based on the size of the mess). I wondered what people in the industry thought about featuring a trashed hotel room as part of the Vegas experience, despite the humorous storyline. The whole thing frustrated me when I looked at it from the cleaners’ perspective.

The lack of respect for the people who clean up these messes bothered me immensely. I wondered when the cleaners did their toughest work. I stayed in a nice hotel and it was very clean. Everywhere. But I never saw anyone cleaning. What I did see was a casino that never closed and the imagined anguish of the workers who had to clean around drunk-on-free-drinks tourists who think this is going to be their lucky day.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well this is their job! If they don’t like it, they can do something else!” Of course, yes, it is their job. But the choices thought to exist in employment are wildly exaggerated. They do not have a choice between low-wage jobs and decent-wage jobs. Sometimes low-wage workers have a choice over what type of low-wage work they do, but a lot of times, they don’t. They do the jobs that are needed and available.

But the choices in employment are wildly exaggerated. They do not have a choice between low-wage jobs and decent-wage jobs. Sometimes low-wage workers have a choice over what type of low-wage work they do, but a lot of the time, they don’t.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hotel housekeepers and janitors working in the Las Vegas area make about $13 an hour (keep in mind that Las Vegas has a high cost of living). Although these workers’ wages are important, that’s not the point I want to make. The point is about treating people with dignity and respect – especially those low-wage workers who clean up other people’s messes. One way to do this is to clean up after yourself as much as possible in the situation. Be apologetic, courteous, and grateful instead of shrugging off your responsibility for the mess because it’s someone’s job to clean it.

A similar thing happens on college campuses. I often see bottles and food wrappers left in classrooms, scattered all over the place. Because most of this labor is invisible – done behind the scenes, out of sight, it is easy to forget that an actual human being is the one who bends over to pick up empty crumbled snack bags and candy wrappers off the floor. We rarely thank the invisible worker for all the times the paper towels and toilet paper rolls are stocked and the toilets and floors are sparkling clean; but we are quick to criticize them when they are empty or dirty. Only when we have a complaint do the workers become visible and human. Then these complaints are often greeted with disdain, arrogance, or even hostility.

The college students/faculty and Vegas tourists are all lacking a key aspect of the sociological imagination: the ability to perspective take. In this case, taking the perspective of the worker would allow the consumer to see the situation from a different point of view; precisely why I asked you to do this at the beginning. This is a crucial practice in sociology because in order to understand someone’s behavior, choices, experiences, the first step requires us to see the world from their perspective – not our own. When we are too busy thinking about ourselves, we fail to see others’ views of the world.

I think all jobs are valuable. Everything that gets done in our society is done by a person who has a mind, a heart, a family, and a view of the world. A janitor’s job is crucial to the operation, reputation, and cleanliness of a hotel and casino like the Bellagio, to your college campus, and to any business serving food. As consumers and beneficiaries of these workers’ labor, we owe it to them to treat them with the respect they deserve. Thank them, if only in your minds, for the things they do right and well – so well that we don’t even notice they’ve been done.

And for Pete’s sake, don’t get drunk and treat a janitor like a tourist attraction. That’s just rude. Instead, do your best to clean the unintended messes you make, or at least apologize and thank her. Although most of this work is invisible, there are hardworking people who make sure that you have clean furniture to sit on, sparkling fixtures to admire, clean classrooms to learn in, and toilet paper to wipe with. You can tune your mind to make this work visible to yourself. When the work is visible, so is the person who does it. Then, you can respect and value them both.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What is labor like where you live? Are workers paid well? What kind of work are they doing? How much do they earn for which types of jobs? How do these compare to other cities or national averages? http://www.bls.gov/
  2. What other jobs are invisible to you? How can you learn to see the work that goes into it? How can perspective-taking improve your understanding of society on a more macro level?
  3. Write down as many jobs as you can think of off the top of your head. Then, rank them from highest to lowest in prestige. Compare your list with a classmate. What similarities do you have? How did you come to assign prestige to certain occupations? How does the occupational prestige hierarchy shape how we view and treat people who do certain kinds of work?