Livable, Fair Wages - An Interview with Brad Greiner

COVID-19 has exacerbated financial burdens for Americans from every walk of life. These unprecedented times have made the issue of income inequality and livable wages more apparent than ever before. Los Angeles has received heavy attention in regard to this problem and being a part of this community means Open Air Homes has a duty to address and respond to the issue. 

Although the sun may shine most days, and the beach is never too far, SoCal’s constant rays have a pretty hefty price tag. LA continues to be one of the most expensive cities in the nation and it can be challenging to enjoy everything LA has to offer when families are worried about affording basic essentials while still working full time. We interviewed our founder, Brad Greiner about the importance of paying our cleaning crew fair, livable wages. 

How did you meet/find the current cleaning crew?

The current cleaning members of our team all came from different resources.  We love working by word of mouth, so cleaners have come from recommendations from friends, recs from business partners, and even by biking around Venice Beach and meeting cleaners leaving homes.  

I believe it’s the right thing to do to pay our cleaners a fair wage, and so when we determine a cleaner is hard working, cares about the job, is friendly towards guests, and works to get the job done right every time, these cleaners typically stay with us for the long haul.  We are friendly, understand that they each have lives of their own, and work with them to create a schedule that works with their lifestyle and other pursuits.

For example, we hired a cleaner named Varvara from Russia.  She only has a bike, and since she lives in Santa Monica, we only give her jobs within biking distance from her home.  As an example of upward mobility, she is now studying interior design and we are in the beginning stages of teaching her and all of our cleaners the basic principles of interior design, so that they can each help play a positive role in the hospitality design of our homes.  It’s not about matching a picture and recreating it, but instead teaching our team the principles of interior design aesthetics so that they continue to learn skills for upward mobility. 

Varvara in particular has shown an interest in this career path, and I look forward to the day when she graduates and we are able to offer her an even bigger potential role at this company since we are so design-focused.  

How important is paying a livable wage to your employees to you?

When I first started in this business, the cleaning crews that came to my home came from companies that had a “lead” and it was a different group of cleaners each time.   It very quickly began to feel wrong to me that I could sense that a lot of these hardworking individuals were earning far less than a livable wage.  

It was in that moment that I learned the importance of paying a liveable wage for this valuable work for our business, and I started myself on a path towards knowing each and every cleaner that works in our homes, their families, their interests, and their priorities.  We put a lot of faith and trust in our cleaning team, and they work so hard for us, which is why I find it important to know them, show appreciation for their work, and reward them well.  

For a quick story about paying a fair, livable wage, a good example is Flora, who has been with us for 6 years.  She loves to work and prefers to move her body as opposed to work from a computer.  A few months ago, she came to me and said that moving forward she wanted the weekends off, and that she was fine working 4 days a week, or at max 5 days.  

I believe we have created a company culture and work environment where Flora feels comfortable saying that she wants to work a bit less, and we are able to make that schedule work for her.  If we paid less, like a lot the competition, Flora might be forced to work very long hours and overtime just so she could survive in LA.   And I feel grateful that I have created a company culture where we value their work, and pay them enough to have a nice life in Los Angeles. 

LA is notoriously known as one of the most expensive cities in the US. A “livable wage” here is much greater than the rest of the country. How do you pay higher rates while staying profitable?

We charge a higher cleaning fee for our homes than some of our competition, and our guests should know when walking in our door that we expect it to be right every single time.  That is the trade off for paying a slightly higher cleaning fee.  That money goes to pay our team a higher hourly rate. 

I would like to challenge the idea that exists that just because we CAN find someone to work for very low wages to clean our homes, that we shouldn’t strive for better.  

Open Air Homes primarily works in the luxury and high end market, and we are fortunate to have guests that are understanding of our higher cleaning fee.  When I get push back from a select few, I let them know that we pay our team a fair, livable wage and as a result, I can guarantee you that my cleaning team members take pride in making sure that when they present a home to our guests, it will be done right. 

By the way, my Westside gardener Juan is a hardworking, friendly, skilled gardener who has helped me with countless landscape installs.  He probably has about 20 homes of ours in his rotation now.  As an example of our commitment to paying a fair, livable wage, Juan travels to Mexico often for a month every year to spend time with family and friends, and I also wrote him an employment letter to his bank so that they would underwrite the purchase of a brand new truck.  Juan cruises to his job sites in a style, and it makes me proud that his hardwork and dedication to our homes has lead to him enjoying the lifestyle of his choosing. 

How do you support your team outside of financial compensation?

I think the main way we support our cleaning team is by listening to their needs, wants, desires and their ideal schedules. I have it ingrained in me from an environmental standpoint to hire people who live close to their jobs, so we try to not have our cleaners drive all over town to work.

As I mentioned above, Flora has worked hard here for many years and wants the weekends off.  We take her and every cleaner’s needs into consideration so that they can enjoy all that Southern California has to offer. 

How have your employees been affected by COVID-19?

Our team members have been remarkably resilient.  We pivoted our business at the start of COVID-19 to longer stays with flexible terms, and we filled the majority of our homes with stranded tourists.  We were able to keep our cleaning team working at about 50% capacity for April and May, and by June, we were back to normal amounts of work.  

Our cleaning team and our guest’s safety is important to us, so we have been constantly keeping up on CDC guidelines for our homes, including our cleaning team wearing gloves and masks while working.  We are also providing extra disinfectant (from our partners at Public Goods) and cloths at the front entrance for any of our guests that want to disinfect a second time before using the home. 

Has COVID-19 changed your outlook on wages and how frequently employees should be paid?

The broadening income inequality gap in this country is and will be one of my main focuses for the next 5-10 years.  While I don’t have the exact answers or the road map to getting there, I can tell you that we are on a dangerous path towards widening inequality, and if taxes are not soon raised on the rich, we will enter a phase of America that no one wants to be a part of. It’s coming and it’s coming fast.  

I think that COVID-19 and the recent BLM protests have both shown for different reasons that we need a systematic change in this country from the bottom up.  For now, all I can do is help by using my voice and by thinking about all of the innovative systematic changes that we need, and by keeping an open mind to incorporating those into my business.  I can affect the lives of those within my organization, and while I still need and want to be doing better, I am keeping an open mind to the ideas and discussions that are emerging about these systematic changes, and I am committed to being a part of the solution, one day at a time. 

Between now and 2023, the minimum wage in California is planned to rise a dollar per year until it reaches $15.00/hour – what are your thoughts on this increase? Is it a fair wage? Is it increasing fast enough?

I’ve read a study that at this current moment, those who live in Los Angeles need to be earning between $15-20 an hour in order to have their basic needs met.  I think $15 an hour should be the starting place, and I would prefer it happens overnight as opposed to in a few years.  If large, multinational corporations and the top earners would pay their fair share of taxes (and to be honest, they pay the rates they do because our government hasn’t changed the tax codes), we would have the money in this country to create governmental systems that give hardworking people the safety nets needed to live a comfortable life at $15 an hour.