update: my husband can’t work because of his boss’s chemo

Remember the letter-writer whose husband was asked to stay home from work if he’d been exposed to anyone with a fever, because the boss was going through chemo? The husband didn’t have any paid sick leave. Here’s the update.

My husband’s original employer, Jane, is still alive. And . . . still cranky and unpredictable. Her daughter Cecelia and son-in-law Wakeen have increasingly taken over the business, while Fergus, who has always been the manager, has, well, managed. As far as I understand it, Jane actually is no longer the legal owner – Cecelia and Wakeen are, but Jane still exerts a firm hand in trying to control the daily operations, and they still have another business to run so they aren’t always there. Fergus is a gentle sort, good at his job and definitely trying to keep my husband — who I’ll call Mr. Smith — safe and working away to meet deadlines. Our children have been very, very healthy for the last four months, so the issue of his coming to work with possible viral contamination hasn’t really been raised lately.

Things were humming along, the new business plan was unfolding, everyone seemed happy with his work, and I decided to relax and just wait for Jane’s family to completely take over so Mr. Smith’s talents might be fully utilized. In the meantime, Mr. Smith had been diligently applying to other jobs, since as your readers pointed out, plenty of people undergo cancer treatment without turning into intolerable harridans, and there’s never any harm in seeing what’s out there. Wakeen kept dangling the promise of future raises and better conditions, and I’m sure it was sincere but I am very skeptical.

Mr. Smith went to work on a Monday morning, just after we returned from the luxury of an overnight trip without the kids – something we virtually never do, for reasons that are about to be obvious – and BANG! out of nowhere, Jane had gone into the office over the weekend and attempted to completely dismantle the entire business plan, unbeknownst to Cecelia, Wakeen AND Fergus. Just decided to completely change directions, abandon the plan they had been working on for more than a year, fire the staff, and run the whole thing herself according to some incredibly outdated business model. I think she was this close to changing the locks, too, but wasn’t able to arrange it. No severance pay and no chance to collect unemployment either because she was paying Mr. Smith like an independent contractor. So that overnight trip represented a week’s worth of groceries or more for the family, money I absolutely would not have spent frivolously if I had even an inkling of what was about to happen.

But that’s only the beginning of the weirdness. Wakeen, the son-in-law, seems to understand that morally you cannot yank the rug out from a person with a family to support (persons with no families to support, by the way, are still entitled to earn a living – everyone has bills to pay.) So . . . he went ahead and set up a job interview on behalf of Mr. Smith at another company. On its face, this seems cool. The job is actually totally in his wheelhouse, he has years of experience doing it, he could help out a newish business trying to get a bigger local market share, so, OK, thanks Wakeen. Except for this part: Wakeen somehow has it in his head this is a temporary arrangement, that as soon as the business is back under his control and is profitable again, Mr. Smith will just back out of working for the other company and come on back. Marmaduke, the owner of the other company, is a personal friend of Wakeen’s and has done business with Jane. Consequently, he is not eager to burn any bridges with Wakeen or Jane, so it is starting to feel like Mr. Smith is a courtesan being traded among friends. “Remember,” said Wakeen, “you really work for me.” It is Mr. Smith’s opinion that he really works for whoever writes him a check that clears, and I tend to agree.

Mr. Smith has been training at the other company headquarters for about a week now and will shortly be the designer-in-chief at a secondary location much closer to our house by next week. He likes it, they are kind to him and he’s learning new skills he could take to another job. He would prefer to stay permanently and they need him. Wakeen apparently called him this morning and said he needs Mr. Smith to do some maintenance work on the company’s website; I gather he has agreed to do this remotely for an hourly rate. Once upon a time we were both adjunct instructors at a local college and it occurred to me then that people in such positions end up being both priceless and valueless at the same time: employers treat you like you have absolutely no worth at all and yet they cannot operate without you. That’s how this feels too.

I am not sure this qualifies as a happy ending just yet, and I can certainly update you in a month or two when Mr. Smith is making Marmaduke potloads of money and the original company folds as a result of poor direction or, more likely, the IRS pays them a visit and examines their payroll records. I really hope Marmaduke hires Fergus someday, too.

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    Eek. I’m glad OP’s husband has a paycheck but I hope he finds another job unrelated to any of these people.

    1. Lynca*

      Agreed. The situation is pants on head crazy. I’m glad Wakeen is going to at least pay for the work requested but this employee ‘ownership’ mentality is just toxic. It would be best to get away from all of these people.

      1. PantsOnHeadCrazy*

        Long time lurker and avid fan – had to post that I literally LOLed at “pants on head crazy.” So much so that it is now my user name.

    2. Daisy*

      It sounds like a soap. All the businesses are owned by one family on one street and no one can ever work anywhere else.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I have to jump in here, too and agree. I was thinking it’s like a company town…or a fiefdom. Ruled by a mad queen and her heirs.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              Just more confirmation that there ain’t no crazy like A Small, Family-Run Business crazy.

      2. LBK*

        Oh yeah, I can totally picture Catherine Martell sending Josie Packard off to the Great Northern to meet with Ben Horne and saying, “Remember, you really work for me.”

  2. Traveling Teacher*

    “Once upon a time we were both adjunct instructors at a local college and it occurred to me then that people in such positions end up being both priceless and valueless at the same time: employers treat you like you have absolutely no worth at all and yet they cannot operate without you.”

    This was so beautifully said, OP! I hope that you all keep untangling this situation and that your husband can finally find a place where he’s actually valued and supported, whether this job, or another!

    1. Elizabeth H.*

      This is really well stated. I work at a university and I’ve had similar thoughts when we are planning our curriculum and trying to do the best with our budgetary constraints, but OP/Mrs Smith articulated this so astutely.

    2. Wren*

      That hit home for me too. I was a grad student, then a staff member in a couple different positions at a university and this was exactly how it was. Your work was essential and large, expensive projects would grind to screeching halt it, but you yourself are treated as a mere cog, even if what you do requires quite a bit of training and expertise. Fortunately I had excellent bosses that made me feel valued and supported, but outside of those direct managers, it could be very demoralizing at times realizing just how little you really mattered.

      I hope the OP’s husband can get out of that environment. Your boss can make or break your experience in those types of places, which is not healthy.

    3. esra*

      That jumped out to me, ugh, I have so been there. I’ve had a couple jobs where they treat you like you are worthless and utterly replaceable… but of course you also can’t take a single day off and every single thing you are working on is urgent and important.

      Here’s hoping Mr. Smith can stay at the new gig or find something great.

  3. JB*


    Mr. Smith should continue looking for other work. Who knows what is going to happen in the future with Marmaduke? I hope he manages to land a job with a stable company that values, and properly compensates, his work product.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Agreed with this 1000%. Who knows what conversations Marmaduke and Wakeen had when he set up the interview. And if Wakeen says he wants Mr. Smith back, Marmaduke may not want to make waves regardless of what Mr. Smith wants.

      Also agree with the comments below that he should at least attempt to file for unemployment if this happened recently.

      1. Anony*

        Can he file for unemployment if he already found a new job? I thought that you no longer qualify once you start working again.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I think he could apply for the time when he was unemployed, but I’m not entirely sure how that works.

          1. Liane*

            The procedure would depend on the state (if USA). Also, many states allow partial benefits if you are making less than $X at NewJob, but it doesn’t take much to hit that threshold, at least in my state. Working half time at a minimum wage seasonal job put me over.

  4. Outta There!*

    WOW! Quite an update!

    But….can’t Mr. Smith still file for unemployment anyway? I mean, from reading AAM archives, just because they tried to “say” he’s an independent contractor doesn’t mean that the Dept. of Labor would view it that way. And if they were classifying him incorrectly, that’s on them, and they would still be liable for unemployment and potentially fines.
    (If I’m wrong, please correct me!)

    1. HR Here*

      I agree- in my state, employees tend to get an award, it is very hard to successfully controvert claims. I think he should have tried it.

    2. Nep*

      Absolutely. Even if your employer insists that you’re an independent contractor, for purposes of unemployment, OSHA, workers’ compensation, and taxes, they may well be wrong. There are independent criteria for each department on the state or national level (this is US only). If you’re ever uncertain, I highly recommend contacting an attorney.

      Note: For workers’ compensation purposes, at least in some states, consultation is free and the attorney is paid out of any awards you receive. I cannot speak for other sections of the law.

    3. Alison Read*

      I’ve not ever heard of a circumstance where you can apply for unemployment retroactively. In the (5) states I have personal knowledge of; you apply week 2 based on your employment status (wages earned) week 1. Typically this deadline is Sunday night of the second week.

      If you apply week 3, you’re then applying for week 2’s benefits based on wages (not) earned week 2. If the individual had worked during the week claimed, then those wages earned that week count against any potential benefit.

      Couple missing the filing deadline with challenging the independent contractor status, the Magic 8 Ball says, “Very Doubtful.”

      1. LQ*

        (Don’t take legal advice from a commenter esp since IANAL.) Often (depends on your state) you can apply even if you lost your job some time ago IF you are still unemployed. You will almost never (depends on your state) get to back date to the date you lost your job, but you are able to claim from that point forward. This changes if you are more than a few weeks out from when you lost your job because your benefits (depends on your state) are usually based on the amount you earned in the previous block of time (depnds on your state) so the longer out you are the less you’ll have to base the amount of your benefits on.

        I would definitely not ever discourage anyone from applying (ESPECIALLY if the employer was saying you were an independent contractor and may be treating others that way because audits) just because they were a couple weeks out.
        It’s the currently working part that means that you wouldn’t be able to get money in this case. Not that Mr. Smith didn’t file the Sunday after (that’s much to short a time frame to be entirely not able to get money in some states).

        Don’t not apply if you aren’t working. (Or rather apply if you aren’t working.) But don’t be shocked if it’s different from different states or you have to go through some extended process if you were being classifieds.
        (Did I mention it depends on the state? Because it totally depends on the state!)

        1. Not a Morning Person*

          Yes, every state handles it differently. Ask your unemployment office and see what they recommend. Apply and see what happens.

        2. teclatrans*

          Yes, my husband waited nearly 5 weeks to apply (in CA), and it was fine. But, they don’t pay back to when your employment ended, only to when you filed (plus the waiting period).

    4. Bea*

      By the time that they successfully prove he’s not a 1099 employee they’ll probably be retired. You don’t get unemployment unless they have documentation showing your employer paid into it. Right now they would auto reject it and the hoops are set up to jump through.

      They figure your base rate by 5 qtrs of wages reported. There’s no documentation on the department’s side showing Mr Smith was even employed there. You’d have to start fighting the wrong classification and then good luck :(

    5. MerciMe*

      I… I wonder if he succeeded in his claim if Mr. Smith’s former employer might relinquish their peculiar feelings of entitlement? Though in that case, he might still be let go by Marmaduke to not antagonize his friend. Drama abounds, in either case. Run and save yourself, Mr. Smith!

  5. Phoenix Programmer*

    Frankly I would talk to an employment lawyer to confirm 1099 was correct status. I am guessing it wasn’t and you are owed back taxes and eligible for unemployment.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      I’d agree, but timing might be an issue. Ideally OP’s husband can wait on this until he has a new job.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Timing might be an issue in a way that means they should hurry up and get on this. Often there are deadlines attached to filing for this kind of stuff, and they should at least find out what those deadlines are before choosing to wait to pursue it.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          Your points are also good.

          The problem as I see it is that Mr. Smith could lose his current job for “attacking” Marmaduke’s friend, in which case they could be 100 percent legally correct and still unable to pay the rent. I think the Smiths should learn what they need to learn about legalities and deadlines, then make an informed decision about whether this is a battle they want to fight right now. It might also be worth learning whether they can make an anonymous report about Jane’s business.

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      Also talk to the state labor department. This is an area where they typically focus a lot of attention.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      Me three. These people are not what I would call “savvy business types” at all. Pants-on-head crazy is about right.

  6. eplawyer*

    A little financial advice from an internet stranger so take it for what it’s worth — take every cent Mr. Smith is making from freelancing for Wakeen and stick it in savings. That way when Marmaduke tries to trade you back, you have a financial cushion to allow you to say bye-bye and buy bonds.

  7. Jimulacrum*

    This story reminds me of someone I used to work for, and the organizational structure of that business (very small company, matriarch owned the place and pulled the strings but often left her son and/or daughter in charge).

    The owner wasn’t doing chemo when I worked there, but she had a serious nasty streak. She often acted irrationally—like asking you to do something and then chastising you loudly the next day for doing it—and was usually zooming around on 15 cups of coffee to boot. She was seldom in the physical business, but she showed up occasionally to do things and was always a phone call away (which we learned quickly if anyone deigned to turn up the heat during the winter). Refused to pay overtime, responded with alternating warmth and frigidity to basically everything, and didn’t hesitate to make nasty remarks or even scream at employees.

    Her son and daughter weren’t really prize managers either, honestly, but to be fair to them, I can see where they got their bad traits. I can’t imagine growing up with a mother like that.

    Ultimately, I quit. No backup job or anything, just resigned one day. I was taking too much stress home. You just have to walk away from a situation like that before it gets too deep into your system. If I were OP, I would be very actively searching for other work rather than allowing such a person to continue to have her hooks in me. Get out of there ASAP.

  8. Mrs. Smith*

    Hi all – it’s the OP, Mrs. Smith. Thanks for the advice about unemployment! We will explore that immediately. He was only out of work for a couple of weeks, but every penny matters. Especially because of this development: Mr. Smith asked for a rate that would have been about a $2 per hour raise. Marmaduke was hesitant but appeared to capitulate (I wasn’t there – I’m his wife, not his agent). However, it seems that Mr. Smith has actually received a $3 an hour pay CUT, and worse still: he’s salaried/exempt. Sure, they have to pay him for Christmas Day and other closures, but he’s not getting any overtime for going in early or staying late as he has been virtually since he started. We were hanging on by our fingernails before, and now I am treating home economizing like it’s my third part-time job (I have two others, in addition to my career.)

    He is learned some new skills that are fairly desirable in his niche, so of course he’s looking around, because this is not a way to guarantee anyone’s loyalty, no matter how “nice” it seems that Marmaduke took him on when everything kind of exploded. As for Wakeen, the business is still operating, but barely, and I give it six months maximum before it completely collapses. If we move on collecting back taxes or anything else, I think we better do it soon.

    The readership/commentariat here really is great; thank you all for your advice and support.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      Good luck to you and to Mr. Smith. I hope he finds a *great* job soon. This situation is N.U.T.S. And yes, if you want to collect any kind of compensation from Jane and Co., better move quick as it’s going to implode soon, and dollars to donuts the IRS is going to be very very interested.

    2. Anony*

      Did he ask about the pay cut? There is a chance that was a mistake, although there is enough other weirdness going on that an out of the blue paycut doesn’t seem improbable.

      1. Lurker*

        Or is it really the same amount gross, but netting less because, as an employee, payroll taxes are now being withheld?

    3. A.N. O'Nyme*

      Good luck to you then!
      This has to be one of the craziest situations I’ve read on here so far…

    4. k.k*

      Here’s one more internet stranger sending you good vibes and wishing Mr. Smith luck in finding a new job far far away from these people.

    5. Circus peanuts*

      If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you may want to see if Mr. Smith can also get a side job to build up an emergency fund so when the crazy hits, you are better insulated against it.

    6. Traveling Teacher*

      Mrs. Smith, I’m only bringing this up because you mentioned home economizing, but please feel free to disregard this if you don’t want/need money advice, especially as it sounds like you already have a good grasp of your “real” income and budget. (Personally I’m the kind of person who knows how to put money into a basic savings account and I try to only buy things that I actually need, but that’s about it). Could be especially worthwhile looking into as you’re working a variety of jobs–I am often in the same boat! Specifically, I really like the Frugalwoods blog and have recently started reading Mr. Money Moustache for advice on savings and frugality and saving money in ways that grow it. But I’m sure that there are a lot of other really good ones out there.

    7. Emily S.*

      Best of luck to you, Mrs. Smith. Such a hard situation.

      I sincerely hope that, in, say, 4-6 months’ time, you can send us another update that’s more positive.

    8. nonegiven*

      Can you be both salaried/exempt and a contractor? I’d look close at the salaried/exempt classification, too.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        Kind of? When you’re a contractor, you can be paid hourly or salary, and there are no minimum wage laws to protect contractors.

        I hope whatever the initial agreement about the pay rate was in in writing somewhere—if not, send an email to ask/clarify and hope Marmaduke doesn’t back-pedal (or outright lie) in response.

  9. Jerry Vandesic*

    I hope he is putting a high hourly rate on his after hours website work. It should be 2-3x the rate he was being paid when he worked for the company. That will do two things: it will better compensate him for his time, and will send the message that the situation has changed. If his former employer won’t pay the new rate, then they will have to do without his services.

  10. Falling Diphthong*

    Your husband should probably focus on doing well at the new job (so they want to keep him) while also still looking for a good opportunity somewhere away from Jane and Wakeen and their crazy. But… you know…. “as soon as the business is back under Wakeen’s control” could be something that isn’t right around the corner.

    …And just saw your post above, so, yeah, less worry about the work for Marmaduke beyond immediate paycheck and cross-applicable skills while looking for something Beyond The Crazy.

  11. Bea*

    The problem with working for crazy people is that the longer they have control the worse it gets. He needs to get away from everyone involved with that nutbag family. Working for a friend ofv theirs will not end well for anyone. They are also probably just as shady and horrible as the others but they fly low due to Jane being Queen Crazypants of the group. Ick.

  12. Lady at Liberty*

    Mrs. Smith, it is my most devout hope that we get a full, extensive, and optimistic update from you on this matter, because your writing here has been phenomenal.

    1. Mrs. Smith*

      Thank you! That made my day. I do write professionally as one of my other jobs. That was so kind of you to say.

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