help, my bullying ex-boss is out of control

A reader writes:

A year ago, I took a part time job while my daughter was at school. It was for a pet-sitting company walking dogs. I was an independent contractor. While I knew the owner was passive-aggressive, I learned to just limit my contact and did what I had to do and developed a loyal group of clients who routinely called requesting me for their dogs. I was up-front with my boss that I had a chronic disease  (Crohn’s) that required me to go into the hospital for treatment on a regular basis, but I made sure it never impacted my job.

Fast forward a year. The manager of the company goes on medical leave and my boss asks if I want to fill in for the manager. I was made an employee, my hours were to be 9-6 Monday to Friday. The old manager e-mails to say she does not want to come back. I was not asked if I liked the job and wanted to keep it, it was just assumed that I was keeping it.

Long story short, in a month I lose 20 pounds, my health plummets, I am working 6:30am-10pm 7 days a week. I was making $900 for 2 weeks of work. My doctors demand that for my health I have to quit. I notify my boss. Her husband calls and start trying to bully me that don’t I understand that this is a $350k a year business, how could I do this to them? Wasn’t our relationship better than this? 

I have barely been gone a week and I am still receiving emails to my personal account and phone calls to my home, some of it work-related, like do I know about this client, or non-work related, like if her sunglasses are at my house. She has everything, the problem is she does not want to actually do the work and actually look for the information.

Since this is not a contract that I had to be let off of or anything even remotely close and she has all the information at her fingertips if she actually wants to take the time to look it up herself, she is just choosing to harass me knowing that I am supposed to be seeing my doctors, taking new medications, and getting extra treatments in the hopes of not forcing my husband to have to get an emergency transport back from Baghdad (where he is stationed) because I couldn’t tell her to take a hike sooner. Do I have any legal rights in Virginia to tell her to stop contacting me?

Uh, yes. You are not in perpetual servitude to her just because you once worked for her. You don’t work for her anymore, and she has NO rights to your time. None. This woman is taking advantage of you. Stop allowing it, today.

Email her and say that you need to focus exclusively on your health and you can’t return any more calls or emails. You can add that your doctors have told you to eliminate stress in your life (as stress is a huge factor in Crohn’s), and you must ask her to stop contacting you while you focus on recovering.

Or, if you want to be less direct, say that you’re leaving town for several weeks and will no longer be reachable.

Then program your email so her messages go straight to your trash and you don’t have to deal with the headache of seeing them.

Update: As I was partway through writing this, I received the following update from the letter-writer:

I just got a voice mail from my former boss telling me that I would not be getting my last check since I told her I would be having a lawyer review the termination papers she sent since they clearly stated that I had to initial a line stating that I did already have the opportunity to have my lawyer review them.

Figures. But she doesn’t have the option of just deciding not to pay you. Send her a brief email explaining that Virginia law (Va. Code 40.1-29) requires that a final paycheck be issued to a resigning employee no later than the next scheduled payday. Furthermore, an employer who violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor (or a felony for subsequent convictions) and a fine of up to $1,000, plus interest to you on the overdue wages.

Send her an email noting the above and saying that you hope she won’t force the issue, since you would rather not cause her that hassle, but that if you don’t receive your check on time, you’ll have no choice but to contact the Virginia Department of Labor in order to enforce the law. Tell her that if you haven’t heard from her with 48 hours, you will file a complaint with the DoL. (And then email me again and I’ll do it for you, because you don’t need the stress.)

This woman is an ass. I’m glad you’re not working for her anymore.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Regarding the first part, I would simply state, "Please don't contact me anymore, since I am no longer in your employ." And leave it at that. It doesn't matter what you are spending your time doing now. You could be spending your time reading romance novels and that would be a perfectly legitimate reason to refuse to respond to her anymore. Because its your time.

  2. Mike*

    First of all, my heart goes out to the OP, no one deserves to be treated like this and in many countries workplace bullying is blatantly illegal.

    For those who are suffering from similar situations, I highly recommend the following:

    The important thing to know is that this is not your fault and you do not deserve to be treated like this.

    Great post.

  3. Anonymous*

    I worked for a terrible person like this once. I applied for unemployment and the dept. of labor called me with questions about whether I was actually a contractor. Did you have a set start and end date when you were walking dogs? Did you supply your own materials (leash, etc)? If the answer to these 2 questions is "no", your employer was probably taking a big shortcut with taxes. You could mention this in a threatening letter to her, and that she would probably have to start paying extra taxes and be subject to an audit.

    One thing you shouldn't do is complain about her in a public forum (like citysearch), or she could sue you.

    Think outside the box with this lady. I actually asked a friend to call my ex-boss for some paperwork once, knowing that she would feel the need to be civil and not seem "monstrous" with an outside person.

    1. Grace*

      I work in law. I’ve had several job interviews last year where attorneys wanted to hire me as an “independent contractor”. Federal (IRS) regulations and my state (California) are quite strict about what constitutes an “independent contractor”. I politely decline the job. Then I go home and file a complaint with the IRS Whistleblower Unit. The IRS and the states have sharing agreements about alleged tax cheats. The IRS also emails me award forms, as I can get paid up to 30% of what the government finds they’re actually owed.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am so sorry that you are going though such a terrible thing. Your former boss has no right to treat you like that! AAM is exactly right. They are legally obligated to give you your pay and there is no reason why you must respond to the barrage of emails and calls unless you choose to do so. I hope that you recover from this ordeal quickly and that you never have to go through something like this ever again.

  5. fposte*

    Also–filter your emails. You don't need to see that she's emailing you. Screen your calls. You don't need to pick up if it's her. Don't listen to any messages she leaves. Take active steps to control her impact on your life.

    And on the "I was not asked if I liked the job and wanted to keep it, it was just assumed that I was keeping it" issue: that's a kind of incrementalism that can feel hard to challenge, but it's well worth doing–if you don't agree with that assumption, ain't no reason for you to stay silent, or to stay at all. "At will" goes both ways. I think a lot of employees get nailed by the silent conversion of a temporary situation into a permanent state. I'm glad you're out of yours, and I hope your health improves.

  6. Anonymous*

    If you're still working, you should be paid. Add up every email & call and file for wages under DOL. She'll get the hint and hassle pretty quick.

  7. Kat*

    Thank you for all the advice. I really appreciate it. I did finally contact a lawyer and start radio silence which has really caused them to freak out once he got involved. I know it will probably cost more than my last check but at this point I pretty much look at it as peace of mind and a leave me the heck alone.
    I don't know about the tax info as the owners were the ones required to provide the leashes & supplies for their dogs. I just had to show up. They paid zero taxes, I paid them all at the end of the year.

    Kind Regards

  8. Anonymous*

    Kat, then unless you completed a W-4 form, they were treating you like a contractor. Did they issue you a 1099 or a W-2? A 1099 is them saying you were self-employed.

  9. Anonymous*

    You should send an email to the Virginia Dept of Labor:

    The contractor/regular worker issue is a gray area that depends on the state, but its worth a shot, because you may qualify for unemployment and your ex-boss would face some well-deserved scrutiny.

    Either way, they do have to provide you a 1099 at the end of the year for tax purposes.

  10. Anonymous*

    Allison – that's a fantastic link, Virginia Code � 40.1-29. I'm sure a lot of your readers try searching online for relevant state employment regulations to find out what their rights are…

    …could you tell us what series of web searches you find helpful when looking for a specific bit of employment law like this?

  11. Natalie*

    10/11 Anon – I'm not sure about Allison, but I've always had good luck starting with the state Department of Labor website. They almost always have a quickie tutorial on state labor rights.

    It also pays to check the NLRB and EEOC websites – they have their own "employee's rights" sections.

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