Gardeners, Housekeepers Feeling Economic Pinch

The troubled economy has prompted many people to forgo small luxuries, like hiring someone to mow the grass or clean the house. And as personal budgets are trimmed, household helpers are often the first to go, which is taking a big toll in places like Southern California.

Before the sun rises in Los Angeles, city buses fill with brigades of housekeepers and nannies on their way to work. Andrea Guaderama, 48, heads to west Los Angeles where she has spent 20 years caring for children and cleaning homes. Guaderama spends her days scrubbing bathrooms, making beds, and washing and ironing clothes for well-heeled attorneys, professors and movie producers. But she says some of her bosses lost money in the stock market or have been laid off, so they've asked her to work fewer days.

Guaderama says some clients want her to work every 15 days, or about twice a month, instead of every week. That means their houses get much dirtier, but she is not able to charge more than her current rate of $75 to $80 to clean a four- or five-bedroom house.

Guaderama struggles to send money home to her family in Mexico, but these days, she's had to cut back. To make up for reduced wages and to help pay her rent, Guaderama now cleans the apartment building where she lives. She says other housekeepers she meets on the bus have it much worse.

Some housekeepers get treated like slaves, she says. A few are physically abused by their bosses. Many are undocumented immigrants and, for that reason, they are afraid to complain if they get cheated or abused.

Losing Customers To Foreclosure

In the Pacific Palisades district, Ismael Alcaraz mows lawns, trims hedges and blows leaves for his clients. He has had his own gardening business for 27 years, and says he has never seen the economy so bad.

"Last month, I lost 5 customers," Alcaraz says. "We got behind in our bills — the situation is kinda bad for us. Some of the people, they cut service ... They want a lot of work for little pay, otherwise they hire somebody cheaper."

At one time, Alcaraz had six helpers. But he had to let four of them go. He says his business earns about $3,000 a month before taxes — money he splits with his workers.

He scrapes together whatever he can to pay taxes and insurance, buy gasoline and make equipment repairs. He has a wife and four children to support, including one son in college. Lately, his clients have been having a tough time, too.

"They said they got no job right now," Alcaraz says. "Plus, they got too much bills to pay and they can't afford to pay a gardener."

Alcaraz says some of his clients lost their homes to foreclosures and moved out without a word.

"Sometimes we'll work for the whole month, and the people never showed up," he says. "They just go and never say goodbye."

Every morning, a group of housekeepers gathers at the Burger King across from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before heading off to work, they chat about their husbands or sons being laid off and their own lost wages.

Marta Espinosa says the workers have to find other ways of supplementing their housekeeping incomes. She tries by selling $6 jeans and $5 blouses. Since she doesn't have a business permit, Espinosa carries her merchandise through the streets in a suitcase. Other housekeepers sell homemade pupusas, Salvadoran stuffed tortillas.

Teresa Navarette peddles musical greeting cards, and Ligia Quinones says she and other housekeepers are now looking for economic salvation from Washington.

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