Nearly a dozen times each day, Charlotte Douglas International Airport employees brace themselves for what they call a push – that stretch when planes sit at nearly every gate, either newly landed or preparing for takeoff.
This is when passengers are most apt to be dashing to bathrooms, making a final pit stop before departing, or seeking urgent relief because they refused to use the vacuum toilet on the plane. They arrive in these restrooms harried and hurried, pulling rolling suitcases and reluctant children. Their backpacks are overstuffed. Their bladders are full.
This is when Mary Love really shines.
“Good morning, ma’am, welcome to Charlotte. How are you?” Love says, greeting a traveler on a recent morning inside a Concourse A restroom. After four years at this job, Love has a smooth routine – welcoming, complimenting (“I like your sandals.”) and pointing travelers to empty stalls.
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Like her fellow airport restroom attendants – about 75 in all – Love’s main job is to clean. But that’s not how most people see her. More often, travelers remember Love and her co-workers as Those People Who Greet You in the Bathroom.
Restroom attendants, sometimes found in clubs and high-end restaurants, are rare in airports, at least in North America. “It appears this may be unique to Charlotte,” says Mimi Ryals, with Airports Council International-North America. Ryals likes Charlotte’s attendants, by the way. “They’re so nice,” she says.
I, too, am a fan, appreciative of small kindnesses amid the demeaning frustrations of modern air travel. And it struck me recently after receiving an attendant’s friendly benediction as I exited – “Have a good night, ladies. Thank you. God bless you!” – that these people supply thousands with their first impression of Charlotte.
Mints, tissues and hospitality
Whether you love or hate them – and some travelers do hate them – it’s Bob Lucas you have to thank. In 2006, with the airport growing like crazy, each restroom was averaging 175 to 200 visits per hour, and Lucas, the housekeeping manager, was getting complaints about cleanliness. With such heavy usage, he realized, the most diligent roving housekeeper couldn’t keep things tidy.
So he launched an experiment, staffing each restroom from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. with attendants who cleaned almost constantly. Since the employees would be spending entire shifts in the restrooms, they were encouraged to be helpful and show personality, though “no dancing on the counters, or anything like that,” Lucas says. There would be complimentary mints, tissues and toiletries and also a tip jar, though asking for tips was forbidden.
Today, Charlotte Douglas is the eighth largest U.S. airport as measured by passengers – about 44 million a year. Restroom visits are now up to 300 people per hour. If Lucas loses an attendant for even 10 minutes, “that bathroom will be destroyed,” he says.
Attendants are employees of Sunshine Cleaning Systems, which provides airport housekeeping services. They come from 19 countries, so you may hear “Welcome to Charlotte” delivered in Russian or Ethiopian accents. About a third of the attendants are adults with disabilities. “They’re highly functional adults,” Lucas says, “but unfortunately, some people don’t give them a chance.”
The job, on its face, is unappealing, given that it’s inside a bathroom. Lucas has done a few restroom cleaning shifts himself, so he can attest, he says, that the work is hard.
Attendants get $3.29 an hour in wages, plus tips. If the tips don’t roll in, they’re paid at least minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, but when tips are good, they earn substantially more. Typically, an attendant earns $100 to $300 per eight-hour shift, says Sunshine’s Charise Jenkins.
They’re chosen carefully; not everyone takes to these jobs. It helps if they enjoy people and if, like Love, they see the work as more than a paycheck. Love needs a knee replacement and is often in pain. But she believes her purpose is to brighten travelers’ days. “The passengers look for me,” she says. “I don’t want to let them down.”
Ticklish politics of restrooms
Without Charlotte’s restroom attendant policy, Lucas estimates the airport would be paying about $1.2 million a year more to clean the bathrooms. It would need just as many people, but tips would no longer make up most of their wages.
Lucas gets few cleanliness complaints these days, but he does receive periodic emails like this one, from a man in Fort Mill: “Will you PLEASE stop staffing attendants in restrooms. It’s awkward and embarrassing to have someone actually paying attention to you while you do your business.”
There are similar complaints online. “While I enjoy a nice clean bathroom,” one man wrote, “I’m sort of uncomfortable with having someone watching me go and then handing me a paper towel out of a dispenser and expecting a $1.”
That’s not surprising, says New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch, co-editor of “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.” Urinals don’t afford the privacy of women’s stalls, and men tend to be more anxious about using the bathroom near others, he says.
Attendant Jeff Rhyne says he’s keenly aware of this tension. He works to minimize it by maintaining appropriate distance. “You try not to approach a person when they’re excusing themselves.”
And there’s that tipping issue. Some travelers resent the attendants’ presence because it makes them feel pressured to drop a dollar in the jar. Love says if she notices someone glaring at the tip jar or otherwise seeming perturbed, she calls out: “This is all complimentary.”
It struck me recently after receiving an attendant’s friendly benediction as I exited – “Have a good night, ladies. Thank you. God bless you!” – that these people supply thousands with their first impression of Charlotte.
Most people, I suspect, don’t notice when attendants are cleaning. I never did until I hung out one morning with Love. While the restroom was busy, she chatted and called out hellos and goodbyes. When a woman at the mirror sighed as she eyed the fresh coffee stain on her jacket, Love advised applying a little hand soap.
But when traffic slowed, Love pulled on latex gloves and went to work, wiping down sinks and toilets, emptying the trash receptacles inside bathroom stalls. One receptacle – second stall on the right – kept eluding her. As soon as an occupant exited, another claimed it. For some reason, that stall was popular. Finally, Love saw an opening and nabbed the trash.
What I learned that morning: A spritz of white linen air freshener keeps stalls smelling fresh. Batteries in heavily used paper towel dispensers only last a couple of days. And when you think attendants are hovering, they may just be waiting for an opportunity to clean.
Since Love, 60, got her restroom attendant job, she has changed thousands of rolls of toilet paper, tended babies while moms ducked into stalls and comforted people who were en route to funerals or distraught over missed flights.
She has also posed for Instagram photos, received a generous tip from gospel singer Vickie Winans and been featured in two online columns by travelers impressed by her warmth and efficiency. “When you look up positivity in the dictionary,” one woman wrote, “there should be a picture of her.” As restroom attendants go, Love is something of a star.
“I think it’s precious, really,” traveler Deanna Knox, from Franklin County, Va., told me as she exited Love’s restroom. “It’s Southern hospitality. To me, it’s just a good vibe.”
Welcome to Charlotte. Love it or hate it, we’re the city that talks to you in the bathroom. There’s an open stall, just around the corner.
Pam Kelley: 704 358-5271 @pamkelleyreads