Navigating the pandemic: Gladys Vonglahn is pivoting her cleaning service to meet clients’ changing needs (more offices, fewer residences … even a yacht)

After a few months of the pandemic, Gladys Vonglahn, who runs a professional cleaning service, has earned her sea legs.

In sailing the choppy waters of COVID-19’s disruption, Vonglahn has had longtime clients tell her that they don’t need a residence cleaned right now. She gave an example of a luxury Jersey City apartment she cleans for an individual who started living in a different family residence during the pandemic — meaning he didn’t require her business to clean the apartment anymore.

But, he said, I’ve got a yacht. …

Gladys Vonglahn with former New York Giant Jessie Armstead, a client of her cleaning service.

She’d never cleaned one before, but if it’s a yacht someone wants cleaned — she’ll do it.

A Chilean immigrant who founded her business, Gladys’ Cleaning Service LLC, in 2003, Vonglahn has the sort of knack for pivoting that has allowed entrepreneurs to stay afloat as once-dependable business faltered with the spread of COVID-19.

Vonglahn’s biggest move was marketing her services more toward businesses. She always did some portion of her work for doctors’ offices and other commercial clients, but she said it made up a very small percentage of the work she did, which was mainly residential cleaning services.

Now, commercial operations that want to ensure they’ve got a clean, sanitary environment for employees and customers during a pandemic are driving a new demand for her services.

“I always wanted to be in the commercial area,” she said. “Before, they mostly hired big companies for cleaning. I was too small for them. … Now, you have businesses calling and saying that the big cleaning company hasn’t showed up in a week, and they’re requesting cleaning and disinfecting to make them feel safe.”

All of her residential clients, meanwhile, were suddenly working from home. They either didn’t want anyone in their home — understandable, Vonglahn says, because of the COVID-19 fears — or they were able to do more cleaning themselves.

The opportunities that are out there for residential clients sometimes scare other cleaning services off. Vonglahn heard of one woman who had been hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 and was coming home, but needed help cleaning her house.

“I felt so bad for this lady,” she said. “I said, ‘Someone has to do this job.’ And, of course, you feel a little fear. We’re human. But, when I look at my family, I have five boys — and I want to show them I’m a hard worker that will find success in her business.”

She also doesn’t want to get herself or her family sick, so she takes as many precautions as she can. She has a health care worker-like routine that she follows when she gets home from work, involving an immediate shower and washing all the clothes she used that day in hot water.

Gladys Vonglahn speaks at a community workshop.

Then, around every three weeks, she gets a COVID-19 test done.

Vonglahn, a religious woman, says a prayer each day before she leaves the house. She’s seen people come down with the illness and be hospitalized, so she knows the danger of continuing to work throughout the state’s waves of infections.

“But I feel it’s the right decision to be doing this, and I’m so glad that I’m able to have these clients during the pandemic,” she said. “Many didn’t want to go out to clean any more. But I wanted to go out and offer my services.”

It’s also a matter of survival.

And although it’s a competitive time for business, Vonglahn, who regularly speaks at workshops for Hispanic entrepreneurs, wants the other enterprises in her community to survive as well.

“From my point of view, bigger cleaning companies can survive easily because they have capital,” she said. “But, I think small businesses like me, for most of them — they’re disappearing, especially businesses owned by minorities. And it’s really these businesses that grow the state’s economy.”