when you can’t get a raise but might get the whole business

A reader writes:

I’m writing on behalf of my cousin. She is a college student who works for a couple who owns a small business. She has worked for them for six years, helped transition them from brick-and-mortar to completely online, built their website, designed their logos, and created/managed/grown their social media accounts across various platforms.

The couple tends to give her a hard time over silly things (think offering 10% discount codes to customers who got shipped the wrong order — by the owners!) and have no expertise in social media marketing, which their business relies heavily on. My cousin has expanded the business so much that they now make sales in all 50 states, Canada, and Australia. She tends to average ~30 hours every week (while being in school) which includes being available at the drop of the hat for a phone call with the owners.

She truly loves what she does, but is beginning to feel burned out and underappreciated because she hasn’t seen an increase in her hourly wage ($10) since she started six years ago. I should also note that there are not any outstanding perks alongside the wage (such as getting free products). Her responsibilities have morphed from retail sales to running many of the daily operations of the business.

She is reluctant to ask for a raise because the owners have hinted that they may retire soon and leave the business to her (free of charge). My cousin doesn’t know if asking for a raise would jeopardize her chance at inheriting the business (which would be a wonderful source of income for her). She has expressed that if she were to lose her job or they did not leave the business to her, she would be able to create her own business using the skills she has learned and contacts made while working this position.

The whole situation is a little bit wacky. She should have asked for a raise a long time ago, but as she was a high school and now college student who relies on the job’s income, I understand why she didn’t feel empowered to do so. My first instinct was to tell her to ask for a performance review meeting as her sixth year anniversary approaches and ask about the owners’ long-term plans for the business/possibility of a raise. Is this the right approach? If so, what types of questions can she ask to figure out if this couple is planning on leaving her the business? What if the owners say they won’t give her a raise because they are planning to leave her the business — how can she ensure they follow through and don’t string her along?

As I type this letter, I think my cousin might just be the most underpaid CEO in America. Kidding! But I do think this couple has taken advantage of a talented, hard-working young person for far too long and for too little pay. I hope you can offer some advice that can help her right this situation and to ensure she is privy to the owners’ long-term plans.

Unless there’s an explicit agreement and preferably a signed contract, your cousin should assume this couple isn’t leaving her their business and proceed accordingly.

It sounds like right now all she’s had are hints. You can’t make professional or financial plans based on hints. Frankly, you shouldn’t even make plans based on outright statements either, unless they’re accompanied by clear and obvious steps to make those intentions come to fruition (things like clear timelines and contracts). But definitely not hints. Hints can be idle musings that will never go any further, or a passing fancy that’s forgotten the next day. Hints also can be intentionally manipulative ways of stringing people along (look how it already has your cousin not asking for a raise). You can’t rely on hints.

If this couple truly wants to leave your cousin their business, they can raise that when they’re ready to get serious about it. But until/unless that happens, she should proceed however she’d proceed if she were sure it weren’t happening.

You asked how she can find out her employer’s long-term plans. She could say something like, “You’ve mentioned a few times that you’re thinking of retiring soon. Is there anything you can share with me about your plans or your likely timeline?” That’s reasonable to ask since she depends on them for employment. She could also say, “I want to make sure I have enough advance notice to figure out my own plans,” which might nudge them into talking about succession if that’s something they’re really serious about.

She could even say, “You’ve alluded a few times to me possibly running the business after you retire. Is that something you’re still considering? If so, I’d love to talk with you about it at some point.” But unless their hints have been pretty clear statements of intent, I wouldn’t ask about them leaving it to her free of charge — that could be a jarring thing to raise if their hints were more on the “passing fancy” end of things and never had serious intent behind them. If they want to do that, let them bring that part up.

Meanwhile, though, she should absolutely make a case for a raise. She doesn’t need to ask for a performance evaluation in order to do that. She can ask for an evaluation if she wants to, but that’s a lot of work just to create an opening to talk about pay, when she can just … bring it up. She can simply say, “It’s been six years since my pay was last set and in that time, my responsibilities have grown significantly. Now that I’m running X, Y, and Z, I’d like to ask that we raise my pay to $__.”

It doesn’t make sense to hold off on that discussion just because they might leave the business to her at some point. Even if they are really planning to do that, it hasn’t happened yet and it could be years away. There’s nothing presumptuous or unappreciative about asking to be paid fairly meanwhile.

If their response is some version of “well, the business will be yours soon enough,” she should respond, “I’d love to talk with you whenever you want about what that would look like. But unless we have a timeline for doing that in the near future — which I don’t think is your intent right now — I’d like to make sure my pay aligns with the work I’ve been doing.”

But really, the less she counts on hints or allusions, the better positioned she’ll be.

{ 290 comments… read them below }

  1. ZSD*

    I would like an update on this! If these people don’t want to give their clients 10% discounts when they themselves make mistakes, I have a feeling they might try to convince the cousin that $10 is a reasonable wage for someone who “only” does what the cousin is doing.

    1. Artemesia*

      They should have been paying her at least $20 an hour for the type of value she brings to a business like this. I know someone who helped an online business get started for minimum wage and a huge percentage of the business to become set when he had worked there a year. He designed the website, creating the marketing strategy etc etc and ONE DAY before his stock would have vested he was fired for no reason except — we can hire someone to maintain what you created. I smiled when the business folded a few months later.

      These people are not paying for the expertise that keeps their business going. Your cousin should be thinking about a business she herself might like to run on line when she graduates and begin thinking about the financing she would need. She could compete with this one since they clearly don’t have a contract and are not considering her in pay and management. What value do THEY bring besides the initial capital? If I were your cousin I would be working on my business plan and finding out if her parents or other relatives would be willing to provide start up capital for her own business either just like this one or similar with a different product. And THEN have the conversation about future of this business. And not accept a dime less than $20 an hour to continue what she is doing. She owes them nothing since they have not considered her in pay or benefits or even supporting her good management and marketing. Screw em. Out compete em.

      1. Artemesia*

        Do not of course hint at or talk about starting a competing business or whatever — just quietly plan while still in school so she is ready to roll when she graduates. Even if they give her a raise — she owes them nothing but her good work while there.

      2. LTL*

        I’m not well versed in small businesses, but the impression I get from the letter is that LW’s cousin should be getting waaay over $20/hour.

        1. Mid*

          I’m the most junior person at my company, and I make $22/hr. She’s so beyond underpaid, I don’t know how she could even talk them up to a fair wage. She should do research on similar position’s pay rate, and then leave and get that rate somewhere else. I highly doubt she’ll be able to get the 400% raise she deserves.

          1. No Longer Looking*

            Location matters, though. Cost of living in your area can have a large impact on reasonable pay.

            1. TardyTardis*

              But if it’s an online business, she should making online money not dependent on geographical location.

              She should plan her own business *now* and bid them a fond farewell as soon as she gets her llamas in a row.

            2. Mid*

              While that’s true, even a CEO in rural Iowa makes at least six figures. There’s a range for sure, but she’s still grossly underpaid for her job duties, without accounting for COL (though I do live in a high COL area and $10/hr is below minimum wage.)

      3. Mama Bear*

        The cousin needs to learn her worth. She has loads of experience now and they are taking advantage of her youth. She should press for a raise, but she should also know what she should aim for (do research to find out the going rate for what she does, not what her title is on paper). She should also be prepared to bounce if they take this as her asking for too much. She is not beholden to them forever. Even if they left her the business…does she want it? There’s a lot that goes into owning a business that she isn’t yet involved in. IMO, she should plan to leave definitely by the time she graduates. She should prepare a portfolio now so she has something to show future employers.

        1. Cj*

          It sounds to me like she is already very well versed in what goes into owning a business. If they do actually give her the business (which I highly doubt they will, but you asked if she would even want it if they did), she wouldn’t have to raise much if any capital since it apparently the business is highly profitable thanks to the work the employee put into it.

          And it sounds like she has learned what *not* to do, like not making things right with customer when they mess up, not paying their employees a fair wage ($10 an hour, for six years, with no raise, and apparently no benefits, when she’s grown the business tremendously, it untenable).

          1. FrenchCusser*

            I can’t imagine this couple retiring and leaving their capital in this business to someone they’ve been underpaying for years.

            They are not generous people. It will not happen.

            1. valentine*

              I can’t imagine this couple retiring and leaving their capital in this business to someone they’ve been underpaying for years.
              Just so. They’re simply not trustworthy. I’d be looking for other nefarious practices.

              1. juneybug*

                Ohh, good point! Are they paying their taxes? How about payments to vendors? Or other expenses to run the company? I would be curious if they are underpaying or worst, not paying other expenses.

              2. Daffy Duck*

                Correct, they are not going to give her the business which has apparently been supporting them and at least one employee, lock, stock, and barrel when they retire.
                At the most, they will give her the option to buy the business and an overly inflated price.
                She needs to droop them like a hot potato and get a job where she will be paid going rate.

              1. Electric Pangolin*

                I mean, my mom, who is basically Scrooge McDuck in personality (she says this of herself, proudly) and is grumpy all day when she is forced to pay for an extra stamp and envelope to send an item she forgot to include in a customer’s order, just left her small but quite profitable online shop to essentially the first random stranger from facebook that managed to show up and take over operations for a week (at, you guessed it, 10$/h!). I would not in the slightest rely on it, but it does occasionally happen.

              2. Jojo*

                Why would they retire? Cousin is putting in 30 hours a week for peanuts and the couple spends 5 hours putting it in a box and going to the post office. And they even screw that up. Yet they are getting more than enough to live on but cousin doesn’t even get enough to make payment and insurance on a nice car. And cousin is still living with mom and dad.

            2. MassMatt*

              I agree, and even aside from their being cheap/taking advantage of the LW, in my experience small business owners often have a VERY hard time letting go and moving on, despite all they may bellyache about wanting to retire.

              I have 1 family member who bought a small business and the owner stayed on as a (terrible!) employee for years–due to goodwill in the community, she couldn’t fire her. Another started working for a father-in-law’s business with the “understanding” that he’d be taking it over within the next couple years. That stretched out to several years, in which the FIL became more and more of an erratic micromanager, until the SIL finally quit several years ago. And the FIL is STILL running the business, complaining about how he “can’t find anyone to pass it on to”, LOL. I was going to buy a small business (actually, a group of accounts) from someone wanting to retire. That’s been “about to happen” for nearly four years now. I’m not holding my breath.

              Don’t forgo decent pay etc now for a vague promise in the future. It actually sounds to me as though the LW’s cousin could just open her own business and take many of the clients with her. If she doesn’t have a non-compete clause, more power to her.

  2. Valegro*

    I wouldn’t rely on any promises or hints of leaving the business to her. I work in the veterinary industry and it’s unfortunately very common for a new associate vet to her hired with the promise that Owner will sell Associate the business in a few years. Until 3 years later when a corporation offers 3x what it’s worth and takes over leaving Associate out in the cold. Words are just that when it comes down to cold, hard cash. She definitely needs to take care of herself NOW.

    1. LuckyPurpleSocks*

      I’ll second that. If the business has really grown that much then it’s very likely the owners will look for someone to buy it for a decent chunk of money, especially if they are looking to retire. I can see the owners, at best, offering to let the cousin buy it from them (first right of refrusal), but not giving it to her for free. : /

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Which of course she can’t do since she’s not making enough to save for it. I’ve seen this story before and it never ends well.

        1. Artemesia*

          But she could be working now to plan her own business and figure out the capital she needs to start one. If her parents could lend her 10K to get started for example, she might be able to get her own started with her expertise.

          1. Clisby*

            I sympathize with that idea, since I can easily imagine helping my 2 children out. But if I couldn’t afford to give them the money outright, I wouldn’t consider it. Lending money needs to be cold-hearted.

            1. Emilia Bedelia*

              The point is that, if there is something that Cousin can be doing to solidify her own path, she should think about it now- not at some point in the future, when she is in the process of being screwed over.

              What kind of expectations would her parents have if they gave her money for business startup costs? Is this something that they could feasibly help her with? If her parents are not a viable route for capital, what about a traditional small business loan? Is there any other route she can go? What kind of funding would she be qualified to get? How much money would she need? What can she do in the meantime?

              If Cousin does this thought experiment and decides that it’d be too much work to start up her own business, that’s just as valuable a conclusion to come to. It is definitely not too early to start thinking about her plans for the future.

              1. Happily Self Employed*

                There are microlending platforms such as Kiva that are great for getting small amounts of capital to get a business off the ground without having to meet the criteria for an SBA loan. The last one I got, I had the endorsement of the local SBDC and my loan was funded in 24 hours. Whether or not she wants to run the kind of teapot business she’s working for now, she could also do the kind of work she’s doing as a consultant and save up to start a teapot business later.

        2. MassMatt*

          There are all sorts of legit ways for small businesses to be bought and sold, from borrowing to revenue splitting. If this is what the LW’s cousin wants to do, it could wind up being a great career move for her. Again, assuming the owners give the business or sell it at a reasonable price. Based on how they are treating this extremely valuable employee now I wouldn’t count on it.

      2. Cj*

        It’s kind of bizarre to think that they would just give it to her, or even sell it to her at a reasonable price. Business owners always want the rest price they can get because that is what they plan on using to fund their retirement.

        1. Amaranth*

          I’ve seen business sold to family or key employees for “minimal” cash up front and basically a pension during the next 20 years. That means you’re tied to the previous owners, which can be an invisible relationship or — in one friend’s case — they acted like they still owned the company and were there. all. the. time.

          I’d advise LW’s cousin to ask for a raise, but also look into aspects of owning a business that they might not be dealing with right now, such as VAT, business licenses, sales taxes, etc. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to a lawyer about whether they’d be served by forming an LLC or putting other ducks in a row.

    2. Mystery Bookworm*

      Yes. Point out to your cousin that it’s very easy to muse about giving away something when there are no other offers on the table.

      But it would be much harder for them to justify it to themselves if they were turning down a packet of money to give it to her.

    3. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      I saw the same thing happen with the funeral home in the town where I grew up. Established business hired new staff, with the promise he could buy in and become a partner/co-owner one day. New hire paid his dues, became very popular with the community (good service, attention to detail, etc.), asked when he would have the opportunity to become and owner and was continually told “Not now”.

      So he opened his own funeral home across the street. (Mostly coincidence – that just happened to be where the vacant lot in town was.) His funeral home is a lot more popular than the original one.

        1. Carlie*

          Is it a shameless shill to note that something like this does exist? Wooden Overcoats is a scripted serial comedy podcast (3 seasons, I think?) that is about a funeral home owner who runs his place badly, and the shenanigans that result when a new funeral home moves in and does a lot better.

    4. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Exactly. If the couple were paying cousin what her work is worth, she’d be in a position to BUY the company when they retired. They have a rudimentary understanding of business from watching MGM versions of Charles Dickens’ stories on TMC.
      On customer service: “I’m selling a good product. The customer will pay.”
      On employees: “I’m providing a job, what more can she want?”
      On the future: “I am here now. When I decide to retire, I’ll just stop that day and walk away.”

    5. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

      Hence why I would go for the raise. Meanwhile OP’s cousin should keep working on starting a business on her/his own, but with a raise s/he can start putting money aside for that. And 10 measly dollars aren’t going to make that happen.

    6. Sleepless*

      I was thinking the same as Valegro…it’s very common for older veterinarians to hire younger ones with vague promises of selling them the practice one day. And then either string them along for years, or sell to a corporation. If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist.

    7. Anony not my story*

      Friend was hired as the first employee at a software company formed by two people he knew from his college internship. Guy1 sold to Guy2 so he could retire. Guy2 talked emphatically about selling him the business or part of it. But by the time Guy2’s offspring was in high school, that conversation stopped when it became obvious the kid was good with software & interested in it. My friend had been well compensated & promoted, so he wasn’t gutted — just a little let down.

    8. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      THIS. This seems like a really noble thought UNTIL they could have a major retirement nest egg in selling the company.

    9. BasicWitch*

      Yep, she needs to ask for a raise and be prepared to walk away. My sister busted her ass at a small insurance company for years, with the owners hinting that they would give the business to her since she basically ran the place. Guess what happened when one of the owner’s kids decided they wanted a career change?

  3. AnotherAlison*

    I think the cousin’s best bet is to go build her own business. $10 an hour? She’s let this go on too long. I can’t see any business owners seriously considering leaving their business to someone they hired as a teenager, who they have never given a raise to, and whose skills they undervalue. If they did leave it to her, I can imagine them coming up with some type of unworkable royalty scheme to buy them out of a valuation that is higher than it should be.

    1. hmmm*

      I wonder without being a direct competitor (selling different services or products) can the cousin grow another business on the side as to not need to rely on the owners.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I doubt they have any sort of employee handbook or non-compete, so I wouldn’t be worried about starting something in direct competition myself, given how lopsided in the owner’s favor this arrangement is.

        Sounds like she started as a retail clerk, and if that’s still how they define her job than whatever she starts shouldn’t be an issue, right?

        1. hmmm*

          Exactly. I also meant, she has the know how obviously, to build a store from brick and mortar to online. Heck she could market that alone as a business idea…. or if she is in (lets say is working in clothing retail) she probably has the contacts to sell jewelry, shoes and handbag accessories. I’m also pulling at the heartstrings that OPs cousin probably does care a great deal for the owners and the business. This way she wouldn’t be taking away/ competing from them. Me personally I’ve seen acquaintances help automating things while volunteering (to get out of the house while kids were at school) and springboarded that to an empire!

          1. RecentAAMfan*

            Cousin may care about the owners. But if, after 6 years (!!!) they’re still paying her $10/hr, it doesn’t sound like this “caring” is going both ways.

            1. Hills to Die on*

              And if they don’t care now, why would they care when it comes time to decide whether to sell the business or give it away?

            2. B Wayne*

              I don’t understand the cousin. She must have some sort of twisted loyalty thing going on for these people and that business. Too much emotion invested into this to the point it has clouded her ability to see being STRUNG ALONG by tightwads. Ten bucks a hour? She can get that anywhere that sells fries these days. Why is she not leaving or seeing that these people are using her? Surely to goodness there are other jobs in the area. The dream of finishing college and jumping right into a ready made business and making tons of money for yourself with your newly acquired free online business is blinding her to all common sense and self worth.

    2. EventPlannerGal*

      Agreed. When you start out in a “service”-type role, it can be SO hard to change your employer’s perception of you even when you are objectively doing work way outside your original role. Her reasons for not asking for a raise are totally understandable, but IME it unfortunately takes a lot of proactive effort to get employers to recognise these changes even when in practice you’ve been doing a completely different job for years. If she’s never even asked for a raise, even for valid reasons, asking to take over the entire business is going to be a pretty hard sell.

    3. Starbuck*

      I agree. At this point, that wage is so low for the level of work described that they might as well be stealing from her. They don’t deserve any of her loyalty.

  4. voyager1*

    1. Gives your cousin a hard time about mistakes they the owners made.
    2. No raises in 6 years when cousin has built the business
    3. Hints at gifting her the business.

    I really hope your cousin gets the business if she wants it. But this sounds terribly manipulative to me by the owners.

    1. Elenia*

      Yeah this is textbook abusive relationship!
      1. Harass your partner about the small mistakes they made.
      2. Never give any gifts or anything else.
      3. Promise, one day we’ll get married! Maybe!

      1. Legal Beagle*

        I think this sounds quite manipulative, but I wouldn’t call it abusive. (Also, a hallmark of the cycle of violence in abusive relationships is that the abuser *does* give gifts after an abusive incident, to induce the victim to stay.)

    1. Jane Austin Texas*

      +1. For a new grad in my city, they’d be making $55,000+ right out of the gate. For someone with her experience and credentials, more. Get this girl paid!

      1. whingedrinking*

        Out of curiosity and assuming that this is in American dollars, I googled the current rate of exchange and applied it to the various provincial minimum wages across Canada. She’d be making over MW in some provinces, but not by much, and she’d be under it in others.

        1. Free now (and forever)*

          Here in Connecticut, she’d be making $2.00 an hour under the minimum wage, which rose from $11.00 an hour to $12.00 an hour on September 1st.

  5. Nameless Shark*

    Even if she does inherit the business, why would that exclude her from getting market rate pay? Is there a presumption that undercutting her pay is her cost of buying the business? This is such a terrible idea on multiple levels. She should be paid a fair salary, and if they want to handover their business they should discuss a reasonable price for the business.

    If the owners are stingy about 10% discounts, something tells me they’re not the kind of people to just give away their business for free to a loyal employee. This is not sensible decision making for any of them.

    1. Nesprin*

      It’d make sense if she was getting paid in stock/shares in the business in lieu of higher compensation, but this “don’t ask us for a raise or we’ll change our mind later” thing is profoundly abusive. There’s ways to give her the business in exchange for her labor, but the owners aren’t doing that.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I agree that the cousin will never be given the business, but tbf it’s the cousin who is refraining from asking for a raise rather than the owners telling her not to.

    2. Mystery Bookworm*

      Yeah, my initial instinct is that the sort of people who would leave her the buisness are also likely the sort who would clue her into the salary structure and offer a raise when her duties increased.

    3. Paulina*

      Yes, there’s no reason why she couldn’t be paid appropriately in the meantime. As things stand, that she’s running so much of the business and costing them very little is a significant disincentive for them to retire from the business — she’s doing a lot of the work and they’re getting the money, why would they quit that? These types of “semiretirement, but we’re still in charge and paid fully” situations can drag on for a long time.

  6. Joie de Vivre*

    Unless the owners have a lot of money saved for retirement, they will probably sell the business when they retire.

    With the skills your cousin has learned, she ought to start a job search. A new job would most likely pay her more and have better benefits.

    Good luck to her.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Lots of small businesses don’t get sold, they just get dissolved. They’ve been squirreling retirement this entire time if they are in a spot of “we can retire”.

      1. Artemesia*

        I know of several businesses that abuses employees like this and then sold for pretty good money when the owners retired. No way they leave the business to her; good chance they will sell to a larger competitor. Thus the cousin should be compiled her lists of contacts and planning her capital raising plan to start her own competing business when she graduates. They deserve it.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It depends on the “type” of business of course.

          Small online retailers do not get bought out that frequently. Which is what this sounds like given the description.

          This cousin doesn’t even work a full 40 hours a week. It’s super small bones. Like all the crappy restaurants who also died when their owners decided to sell it. Sure they may get some money but I wouldn’t call it good-money. Better than a sharp stick in the eye, perhaps.

        2. RC Rascal*

          I’ve also known of several that collapsed because they didn’t pay the key employee a living wage and that person wasn’t able to buy the business for a succession plan, and no one else wanted the business. Or, all prospective buyers knew all the value of the business was the key employee and that person moved on.

      2. Jayn*

        This is pretty much how my parents became business owners. Dad’s boss wanted out, either he could buy the place or be out of a job. (He did sell it to a colleague himself when he got near retirement age.) He’d been pretty much running the place for a year at that point anyways.

  7. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Screaming. Screaming. So much screaming inside.

    No. This is a very typical racket setup by micro-sized business owners. Even if they “leave it” to her, she’s going to have to come up with the capital or investors to keep the funds needed to continue to operate. They will no doubt take out whatever they put in and drain the accounts, leaving her a shell of a business, all its debts and all its problems. It’s much better for her to start her own business, without their “legacy” attached to it.

    I’ve been in a situation similar but here’s the thing, they didn’t pay me a silly laughable amount. Didn’t want it. Not even if it had a pretty bow attached to it.

    I’ve seen more small businesses like this die than ever be “inherited” and been successful. I’m haunted by the old timer who once told me that “These businesses [his and ours] will out last us both!” and he meant it. Nope. Both have died. They weren’t as viable as someone within them would have loved to believe they were.

    She can find other small businesses to do this work for and be appreciated and make bank, without this shitshow involved. Or start her own but really, they’re a dime a dozen. Don’t hitch your horse to this falling star.

    1. anonymous 5*

      Even if they didn’t drain the accounts, and even any the existing investors were still on board with maintaining whatever support they’d already been giving, and even if the debts weren’t outsized relative to the solvency of the business (yes, I know, big “ifs” here, but…): couldn’t inheriting a business potentially hang around your neck an absolute albatross worth of sudden increase to your personal net worth? I assume it’s a different part of the tax code at play than if you were gifted a car or a house and therefore had to pay the tax on it, but it still seems like it could be a tax nightmare even in the best of circumstances.

      And these do NOT sound like the best of circumstances.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        That’s something I’m not familiar with, on the tax level.

        I don’t believe you can be “gifted” a business in general, gifts can’t be assessed over 10k without tax implications for both parties.

        It would depend on the over all worth and if the business can pay it’s taxes in the end. Since if you’re “gifted” a sum of 100k but are living on a sum of $300 a week, barring you going hogwild and spending a lot in that year, the tax money should be within the “gift” itself.

        1. anonymous 5*

          Got it. I am (obviously) out of my depth on business taxation laws, so I had this vision of it being basically a situation of winning some “valuable” but totally illiquid asset and being royally screwed on the individual tax front, never mind the business tax front. I mean, this still doesn’t sound like the OP’s cousin’s situation, but it’s less grim than what I feared!

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Yeah, it’s not like when you “win” a car that’s 45,000 and you have to pay the taxes on it! And the resale value in that way is even less than the tax bill *sobs*

            I would be curious to now how the transfer would affect the assets that were previously fully depreciated. If they suddenly have a transferred market value. This is literally why I don’t want to be a CPA though, it hurts my head, even just wondering about it, lol. If i had the knowledge bank, I’d exhaust myself with rabbit holes.

        2. Cj*

          Yes, a business can be gifted. The person giving the gift pays gift tax, not the person receiving it. And it’s $15,000, not $10,000. It’s also per year, and per person, so the couple could each give the employee $15,000 per year without having to file a give tax return.

          Even if a gift tax return would need to be filed, it’s also a combined estate and gift tax, so no gift tax would be owed until the gift exceeds 11.58M (2020 limit), or the gift plus value of the estate exceeds that when they die. Again, this is *per individual*.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Fascinating! Especially with such a small scale business, that would make this more plausible.

          2. Cj*

            Nesting fail re: your first comment.

            As for this comment, gifts have the same basis as they did in the hands of the person who transferred the assets. There is no increase to the fair market value. There is no tax consequence regarding the basis, other than the fact that because the basis doesn’t increase, the employee would have no basis to depreciate.

            Also, there are differences of interpretation as to how much you need to report as taxable income for vehicles that are won. One opinion is that it is the MSRP. Vehicles very, very rarely sell for this. They are often sold for $10,000 or more less (pickups in particular with discounts, rebates, etc.). They can also be valued for tax purposes for the amount that they organization holding the sweepstakes paid for it, which is what that FMV actually is. In either case the tax due is way less than the resale value of the vehicle.

        3. Amaranth*

          In the cases I’ve seen something similar, a business is sold for a nominal price up front and a share of future earnings/profits so that the current owners continue to have income while doing none of the work.

      2. Cj*

        I’ve seen several comments that surprise me regarding existing inventors. I’ve never run across a small business in my 31 years as a CPA that has had outside inventors.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I have known a few small businesses that have had investors. It’s basically the whole premise of a startup in a lot of cases, they need investors for capital to funding, since banks rarely want to deal with you at that stage if you need large sums. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        We had either another letter or a Open Friday Thread where someone had that situation in front of them, so it’s a thing. But I had the same reaction, I was like “Wait..what?!” It never crossed my mind until that letter/comment.

        If something has real worth to it, they’re going to want that $$$$ why would they ever just gift anything of significance to anyone? Outside of gifting to a loved one, you know?

  8. Adrienne*

    I had a childhood friend who was promised the business just like yr cousin…and it did not happen and they were devastated.
    YEARS of productivity GIVEN AWAY.
    Time is a finite resource and she has already given quite a bit of hers to them.
    $10/hr? ew.

        1. Jaw Drop*

          And to do this for YEARS already, and then for MORE years until they retired? No. Get a raise. Line up your next job or business. The Quit when you’re ready. Never mind this maybe inheritance… No! That’s manipulation. You are too good for this BS. Get your raise and get out.

          Yes, I’m yelling.

      1. Starbuck*

        Honestly I’d call it more like stealing. I made more than that per hour when I was working in the college cafeteria slinging sandwiches six years ago!

    1. PollyQ*

      My nephew makes significantly more than that stocking shelves at a big-box retailer. Granted, in a high COL area, but still. This is a ridiculous wage for the work she’s doing.

      1. Artemesia*

        I suggested up thread that $20 would be a minimal credible wage but that is also way too low. It is not as obviously exploitive and would demonstrate some good faith on their part, but 10 is baby sitting money. They don’t respect or appreciate the value of her work; they are absolutely not ‘giving her’ this business. She should demand a raise now — at least to $20 and nevertheless leave and work elsewhere for a real wage or start her own business when she graduates — or both.

        1. RecentAAMfan*

          I was thinking babysitting money also. I’m pretty sure I paid 15 yo old babysitters $10 an hour…20 years ago.

          1. Mama Bear*

            We pay babysitters no less than $10/hr, and that doesn’t involve taxes. Cousin is taking home less than $10/hr if they are doing her taxes right. A college-aged sitter is at least $15/hr. She’d be better off at almost any other job, esp. when she gets her degree. I strongly doubt a company paying that little has any kind of good healthcare or 401K matching.

    2. Lynn Whitehat*

      Yes, I’ve seen several situations like this, where the employee heard what they wanted to hear, that one day they would surely be given the business. I don’t know how much of it was pure wishful thinking, and how much of it was the owners intentionally hinting and implying in order to string them along. In one case, the original owner handed it over to her son, and the employee was still imagining that one day, it would be hers. The owner *gave it to her son*! It is *no longer hers to give*! In another case, the owner had *five* adult children, all of whom he tried to train in the family business, but the loyal employee assumed that of course it would go to him.

      I don’t know why this particular type of wishful thinking is so common, but it does seem to be. I would never never never make any decisions based on hints or “unspoken understandings”. I would want concrete things like a contract, or a timeline, or a detailed succession plan.

    3. Lynn Whitehat*

      I also meant to mention: if they are serious about giving/selling her the business, asking them about it isn’t going to derail those plans.

  9. LunaLena*

    When is the cousin graduating? If she is graduating soon, it might be a good way to segue into asking about a raise or the owners’ future plans. Like “so I’m graduating in X months, and I’ve started to think about what life will look like after graduation…”

  10. Free Meerkats*

    “well, the business will be yours soon enough,”

    “That’s great to know, let’s draw up a contract formalizing that this week. In the meantime, about my raise.”

    1. irene adler*

      Oh, yeah. Get it in writing. Make it as iron-clad as possible. Cuz, there’s ALWAYS relatives that come sniffing around, when there’s riches to be found.

      1. Artemesia*

        A lawyer needs to be involved if there is such an offer. And then take their advise. My friend who was screwed out of a year of professional work by being paid in ‘stock in the company’ when fired one day before it vested, did consult a lawyer who said ‘hey they could screw you by firing you just before vesting, do you trust these people not to.’ And he said ‘oh they would never do that to me.’ Live and learn.

        1. Mel (Cow Whisperer)*

          Too bad the client’s lawyer didn’t push back on a clause that required back payment of wages if fired before vesting. Since paying employees for work is pretty firmly supported under civil law, it’s not like adding that clause would be particularly unusual.

  11. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    If they’re willing to just give her the business, I doubt it’s profitable. Has she seen the books?

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        My question here is does she know how to read the books…

        The amount of “bookkeepers” and “business owners” who can’t actually read the financials make my heart shrivel up a little more.

        I knew a company wasn’t worth anything, they brought in multiple consultants who confirmed it. The only reason it was sold in the end was a friend of the family knew someone who could merge it with their current business. It was okay as an auxiliary item but not sustainable to live on its own, which is what they kept trying to make happen -.-

        1. Exhausted Trope*

          Now, that’s an idea. If she could merge the biz with the one she wants to start it could work out. Maybe.

          Nah. Ask for a good raise and if not, run for the hills. Do not accept this business.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            I am 100% behind her starting her own business. I don’t want to know what kind of junk these owners have rotting in their business rafters so to speak.

  12. hmmm*

    I have one of two thoughts on this.

    1st It sounds like an older couple who probably doesn’t realize all that OP’s cousin (OPC) has done. Maybe they are a bit old school in their business methods. They might now realize the value of her services. In addition if its a small family company, they might still view her as the teenager looking for pocket money. It’s not a realistic view for the owners to have but I trying to look at this from all angles.

    2nd It could be that the older couple is just stringing OPC along. There is nothing in writing, they haven’t given OPC a raise. I almost feel like they think OPC doesn’t know any better; OPC should be greatful working for us with all the knowledge we gave her; or how dare she consider leaving after all she accomplished! I am imagining a scenario where the owners will be shocked and upset that OPC wants to get things in writing, wants to discuss a timeline, wants a raise!

    OPC should definitely follow Alison’s advice. Alison has it pretty good script to guide OPC.

    1. BadWolf*

      I was thinking the same — the couple might still see the cousin as a teenager for whom they are doing a favor by employing so she can go to the movies. She “tinkers” on the internet for them.

      1. hmmm*

        Silly as it sounds, I was thinking of the “Mr. Rogers neighborhood” hardware store. I’m probably way off base. Little Susie helps at the cash register for pocket money, and oh look Susie is in college now how nice she can keep her job with us. As you said BadWolf, Susie even tinkers on the internet for us. Maybe they just aren’t internet savvy and realize that she took the store to the whole next level.

        Of course it could be a “malicious” side to things in that the owners are truly just looking out for themselves and stringing OPC along.

        OP I keep coming up with more and more conspiracy theories (too much downtime during COVID watching TV). You need to update us!

        1. Artemesia*

          People can fool themselves and justify exploiting others — happens all the time. This is how the poor sisters ended up starving in a small cottage in Sense and Sensibility when their brother and his wife decided they didn’t ‘really need’ what the father had asked be provided after he passed.

        2. Mel (Cow Whisperer)*

          The two scenarios are not mutually exclusive. I’ve seen plenty of small businesses where the owners struggle to see how an employee has changed over time AND treat an employee in a way that helps the owner while hurting the employee.

      2. Alanna*

        Yeah, if she started working for them six years ago and she’s still in college, she might have been 14 or 15 when she started. At that age, people my parents knew would occasionally hire me to do graphic design or editing for them (I was really involved with the yearbook at my high school and had pretty good Photoshop and InDesign skills) and pay me $50 for a small project or $8/hour (which is about $10/hour in 2020 dollars). I thought it was great — I LIKED doing that stuff and someone was willing to pay me for it! — but I now realize they were the ones who got the deal.

        But that was for one-off projects. Being old and kinda out of touch is no excuse for systematically underpaying a reliable person who’s been working for you for six years, grrrr.

        1. hmmm*

          I agree. I keep thinking of an older couple who things tipping the furniture moving company $5 is sufficient. But in reality it’s just a generational thing. I’m probably totally off on my vision, but I the scenario in my head is one of the two above… the owners are naive or scheming

    2. Some Internet Rando*

      I had the same thought. I suspect the couple and your cousin are both stuck in old roles from years ago – the role being that your cousin is the equivalent of a HS student doing a part time job. I think your cousin also still sees herself that way, probably because she is still a student and this is one of her first jobs. This needs to change… and what a wonderful opportunity for her to grow into a new adult role as she finishes up school and starts to recognize not only her own value but what she needs. This job is not sustainable….

      I suspect these owners are in no rush to retire – why should they when a person paid minimum wage with no benefits is doing all the work? This business is making money with someone else doing the work. Why ever leave? They probably won’t see the light until she leaves and they have to either do the extra work (work they may not fully understand) or hire someone else at a decent wage. Then they will retire or the business will fall apart.

      I think the idea of her discussing this with the owners is a good jumping off point. I like the framing of the 6 year anniversary and also that school is ending soon. She has gotten a lot of good experience for such a young person. But soon she will need full time work with benefits. Would they be willing to move her to 40 hours and pay for health insurance and give a raise? I doubt it. Let alone retirement benefits. If they dont give a substantial raise, she knows where she stands with them. My prediction is they will offer something like $12 and expect to be thanked profusely. If that does happen they will be doing her a favor – she will know what the future holds with this business, that they are not really invested in keeping her on (which means not invested in giving her the business) and she can start looking around while working for them.

      I think this would be an excellent time to start applying for other jobs. Your cousin sounds great. She might enjoy working for a bigger more established business with other co-workers her age. She certainly should be looking for a job with benefits. She might find something new that is really exciting.

      Your cousin should not be assuming they will give her this business. That is frankly not a good business decision on their part. She doesn’t owe these people anything and they are not going to think they owe her anything. She should use this time to look around and see what else is out there.

      Send us a follow up!

  13. I'm A Little Teapot*

    So, you’re running most of the business, the owners can’t do what you do – guess who’s really got all the power here? Quite frankly, odds are that if the owners don’t give a substantial raise that they won’t have a business much longer. And a successful ownership transition isn’t actually easy. There’s a reason relatively few businesses survive the death of the founder.

  14. Student*

    I know this seems like the world to your cousin.

    Your job is to convince her that this is not the world. Life will go on after this job. There are many other promising jobs out there.

    At $10/hr, it’s not even a particularly good part-time job for a college student. She could be getting better work experience in a number of other places – places where other people are teaching her things about managing a business. You’ve portrayed this job as an experience where she “teaches” the owners how to run it, which is a terrible dynamic for a young college student to be in for many reasons. One of which is that the owners are stringing her along with grandiose BS, feeding her martyr complex, instead of teaching her not to have a martyr complex.

    I bet if she is able to dig into (or ask about) the company’s overall finances, she may be surprised at what she finds. One thing that young college students don’t understand well is that some people run businesses that are in the red, and manage to make that work for them through interesting tax dodges, independent wealth, or sometimes through undetected illegal activity. Wouldn’t be so great for her if she “inherits” a company that has become a fancy debt-evasion or bankruptcy vehicle for its owners.

    1. Quill*

      Yeah, my thought is that it is fairly likely that this business already has had the wheels come off and is only running on its own momentum.

    2. Joielle*

      Yeah, I can understand putting up with slightly under-market pay if there are other positives, but that’s SO low. I was making $12.50 an hour working part time for a nonprofit in college 10 years ago and that wasn’t any kind of exceptional salary. $10 is well below minimum wage in my city. The cousin should take the valuable experience she’s gotten over the past 6 years and get a job at another company that will pay her appropriately.

      1. Antennapedia*

        This. I was making $10 an hour picking sequencing colonies and autoclaving plates in a campus lab. In 1999. The only reason they’re paying this little for this person’s expertise is that they think they can get away with it.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Sick reminder for everyone in areas with high minimum wage [self included], the federal minimum wage is still 7.25 an hour.

        Only about half the US has a higher minimum wage than 7.25.

        1. GothicBee*

          Yeah, I live in a low COL area in a state that follows federal minimum wage. $10 an hour is a fairly standard starting wage for a lot of places around here. Actual retail jobs often still start at minimum wage or maybe $8-9 an hour (with the exception of a few companies like Target that have implemented a standard minimum wage for their company). But even if she’s in a similar area, for the level of work and number of years(!!) she’s been there, it’s low.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            The rub is that this kind of position, which sounds fantastically diverse by the write up version, it’s a standard administrative assistant position. And many of those gigs are billed as “well it’s better than the grocery store and pays a couple bucks more…”

            It’s still very gross and I don’t like it but it’s sadly standard practice for a lot of small businesses.

            She helped them shut down a brick & mortar store. Sounds like she was a clerk and computer savvy enough that they had her help out with their online transformation. I’ve seen that exact thing. My friend ran the entire damn store and online and was paid a buck more than minimum wage, then was treated like she could buy the store…but the owner was banana crackers off her head changing her mind about it all the time.

        2. Joielle*

          Yes! Jesus. That’s abysmal. Our state minimum wage is around $10 but my city implemented a higher one to account for the relatively higher COL compared to more rural areas. (Spoiler alert, it did not lead to every business in the city folding or moving to the suburbs as was predicted by… some people)

        3. Student*

          Only about 25% of the US graduates college. She isn’t a graduate yet – but if she is on track to a non-minimum wage career after college, she should either be making more than $10/hr doing all this or making ~$10/hr in a job with far less responsibility and less on-call work (which is likely to disrupt her college work).

      3. Artemesia*

        My daughter was getting $20 and hour for a part time job in grad school nearly 20 years ago. 10 won’t even get you an adult baby sitter — maybe a teen.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Now you’re just out to lunch and overshadowing a huge poverty issue within the United States. You should stop and evaluate how privileged you are.

          1. Circe*

            Seconding this. It’s important to remember how diverse America still is economically. My part time job in college five years ago made me $10-$12 an hour. And I thought I was doing ok because atleast I was making more than min wage.

          2. Student*

            I think you are out of line. Her daughter has a college degree and is in grad school. $20 per hour is pretty reasonable.

            Biggest argument against it isn’t to randomly privilege-shame her out of jealousy for her daughter’s actual experience. The issue is that her daughter is a few years and a big step down the career path from the OP’s cousin, so their market price is difficult to compare. Grad student could also be working anywhere from 10 to 80 hours per week, as it’s an extremely exploitative-vulnerable stage in education.

            Getting upset because someone makes more than you is counter-productive. It’s a method of shutting people up that doesn’t further your cause. Encouraging OP’s cousin to know her own value and worth is a way to move things forward.

            Focusing on college kids when you supposedly care about low-wage workers is also counter-productive. College kids as a demographic are mostly gonna be fine. Worry about people who don’t make it to college or don’t have the resources to get to their degree – they need your passion.

    3. RobotWithHumanHair*

      To chime in along with everyone else’s $10/hr history, I was making $10/hr at a family-owned video production business right out of high school.

      That was in 1996.

    4. Mel (Cow Whisperer)*

      I was making $11-12 dollars cashiering for a regional grocery chain while I was in college. That was between 2001-2005…..

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I made $9-$10 an hour as a veterinary assistant in the early 2000s and got out of the line of work because it wasn’t worth it (as much as I loved the work itself).

  15. Kimmy Schmidt*

    I can’t quite place my finger on why, but this letter has the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I feel like OP’s cousin should take their valuable and developed skills and run far far away.

  16. Grits McGee*

    Also to consider- would inheriting the business actually be a good thing? Owner-run businesses are so.much.work.
    How confident is OP’s cousin that the business is being run in a legal and fiscally responsible way, or will there be a huge mess to untangle if the cousin inherits?
    How much capital will the business have, or will the cousin be expected to raise operating cash on their own?
    Will cousin have to hire other employees to feasibly run the business, and are they prepared for the burden of managing additional staff?
    Are the current owners truly independently wealthy enough that they can afford to just write off the business when they’re ready to retire, or will they need some kind of pay out (either from the cousin or another buyer)?

    1. Some Internet Rando*

      Same thought – the cousin is so young and could do so many things. This is just what is FAMILIAR. Is this really a good business? Is it sustainable for the next 40 years? I suspect there are better opportunities out there.

  17. Rusty Shackelford*

    No raise for six years. No benefits. No discount to wronged customers. People this stingy don’t just give away a business.

    1. BadWolf*

      Indeed “No discount for our mistake” people are not “give the business to loyal employee” people.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Now that you mention this…I can see a shady ass couple like this taking further advantage of the cousin here.

      They “retire” and the cousin “takes over operations”, only they’re still pocketing profits and paying the cousin peanuts. They’ll only close their business when they don’t have someone to do the work for them, tbh. Seen it a few times. They will not detach and actually “sell” the business, let alone give it away.

  18. NewbieMD*

    It sounds to me like this couple has absolutely no idea how valuable your cousin is and how the work she does is the backbone of the business. They’re no doubt just thinking of it as, “Oh, it’s just a little something Katie does extra” which, of course, it most definitely is not!

    I wonder if your cousin would benefit from going onto Glassdoor or something similar and finding salary comps for what she’s doing now and showing it to the couple? They seem pretty out of touch although, I’m afraid, they’ll try to tell her that those salaries are outliers and people aren’t REALLY making that kind of money!

    Personal out of touch parent story to follow: my husband and I both work in Cambridge, MA and we bought a small, one bedroom condo. Nothing fancy, but if anyone has ever bought property in the Boston area you know what a circus it is. When we showed my FIL the listing he saw the price and said, “Are you trying to give your old man a heart attack? If you keep looking, you could find the same thing for under $100,000!” Oh, how I wish.

    1. Unladen European Swallow*

      I don’t want to hijack the thread, but OMG! Trying to buy property in the Boston area is nightmare inducing, especially in the last few years! My parents, down in VA, cannot fathom that there are very few (if any!) single family home options for under half a million dollars if you don’t want to spend gobs of time commuting, and that basic 2+bedroom condos essentially start at that price and go up very very quickly.

      OP, your cousin needs to find a new job ASAP, no matter how much she loves her current one. I was making $10/hr, which I considered a good wage, when I was in college 20 years ago! Seriously, this is so far behind the times for the type of work that she does that it’s laughable, if it wasn’t so frustrating.

    2. voluptuousfire*

      I cackled out loud at the “if you keep looking, you could find the same thing for under $100,000!”

      Maybe in an armpit area in Florida.

      1. Nesprin*

        Agreed- 100k for a single family home is … adorable.

        I live in the bay area and the tiny 4000 sqft lotdown the street (it’s triangular, with a 70 degree slope- the definition of unbuildable lot) is listed at 130k.

    3. Health Insurance Nerd*

      Co-signed on the crazy real estate prices. We lived in a Boston suburb and there was no way we could afford to buy, so we bought in the metrowest area at a really, really reasonable price eight years ago. Now the houses where I am are going for almost $200k more than when we bought- so even places in the “boonies” are becoming unaffordable!

      1. NewbieMD*

        Isn’t it insane? My residency ends in a little less than four years and part of me wants to join a practice somewhere where what we paid for our teeny condo would buy 5 bedrooms and a moat! But I do admit that I love it here; crazy as it is!

  19. Been There Done That*

    And if they do leave it to her, could she expect push back/litigation from their heirs (if they have any?). As has been mentioned before, words without a contract are meaningless.

    1. BadWolf*

      Indeed — if the business is profitable (or even if it’s not) — family members likely have plans on it.

  20. mf*

    Honestly, this couple doesn’t sound very trustworthy as managers and employers. They are exploiting your cousin by taking her very impressive skills and work in exchange for a meager wage.

    She should absolutely ask about their plans to pass the business on and, if they say they want her to have it, ask them if they’re willing to put the details in writing. But my guess is that they won’t be willing to commit to anything, so she should definitely have a contingency plan.

    1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      Yes, this.

      The couple might be Very Nice People. But even nice people don’t make great bosses by default. And these people aren’t great bosses – they don’t know their business, they aren’t paying their best worker what she’s worth, and they aren’t offering her anything to keep going.

      She needs to get that offer in writing, at the very least, and probably go job hunting anyway.

  21. KuklaRed*

    Ooo – she shouldn’t count on anything! My ex-husband worked for 12 years at an electronic repair store (yes, children – these places used to exist). The owner always made these vague promises about retiring selling the store to him for a low price to reward him for his long years of work at a fairly low salary. You can guess what happened. The guy retired and sold the store to someone else and basically told my ex to suck it up.

    Never rely on anything verbal. And even when it is written down, be skeptical.

  22. Quill*

    Also: Please, please tell your cousin to LOOK VERY HARD at the sustainability of the business that might be “left” to her. Unless she does all the accounts and has training as an accountant it is very possible that the couple will decide to “retire” with their profits so far when the business is about to collapse, and that she won’t know that there’s been trouble. Or that there are massive bills owed. Or that the couple had been relying on other deeply underpaid labor to make ends meet and that the business is unsustainable.

    Or they could be like my former boss at Pig Lab From Hell and rely on a personal network to get the business ends met and cut corners internally, which is honestly what it sounds like if they’re paying a student to be their entire marketing and web development team.

  23. Georgina Fredricka*

    Oh no! That’s way too low for what it sounds like she’s doing. Honestly, truly, your cousin should start job searching. It sucks that she’s already been doing so much intensive brand work for $10 an hour – that’s less than the minimum wage in some places now!

    Even if they’re well-meaning people and just old, I still wouldn’t trust them to hand over the business to her; as everyone said, there’s a lot more that can go right than wrong.

    And ultimately, like most people – like all of us really – they’ll look out for themselves first. If something happens to one of them (a health problem, etc) and they need extra money, what if they need to sell the business to pay for care? Or what if they have a relative of their own who wants to take over? In either case, they might feel bad for your sister but from their perspective, they paid her to do a job, she agreed to the pay, and the takeover was just a “if things go well” promise.

  24. arcya*

    They’re not going to give her the business. They have realized she’s underpaid and think their lil cryptic clues will keep her in line. Honestly considering the way they’ve conducted themselves I probably wouldn’t even ask for a raise. Get away from that nonsense and find something better!

    1. Secretary*

      Yeah I read that and was like, “It doesn’t matter where in the US this letter is from they are paying her a disgracefully low wage for the work she’s doing.”

    2. MissDisplaced*

      I do a job that is similar to the OPC. It pays between $60k to $80k per year. More if you manage a demand gen team or it’s a high earning online store or big company.

  25. RagingADHD*

    Please encourage your sister to ask for what she’s worth. They would have to be absolute self-destructive morons to fire someone that they’re completely dependent on. There is no way they could replace her for that wage.

    And her skills are in one of the few business areas that is in rising demand right now.

  26. AnotherAlison*

    One more thought: anyone who is going to give away a business [esp. to a non-relative] who has not shown a particularly generous spirit in the past 1.) probably isn’t going to do it, and 2.) will do it in a way that what you get is a pile of zero value nothing.

    My BIL was supposed to inherit his grandfather’s business, but it went to his grandma and just got shut down, with all the money they had then getting stolen by a caregiver.

  27. Salamander*

    This. If the owners are so cheap that they want to pay the person who’s running the show $10 an hour and call her in on the carpet over a 10% discount…they are looking out for #1. They will either sell the business or drain every last nickel out of it before giving it to her. People with this mentality don’t immediately change and become magnanimous when they retire.

    Like the saying goes, the owners have shown who they are. Believe them. Their day-to-day actions demonstrate who they are, not vague promises.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      They seem wildly out of touch with business costs, to say the very least!

      I know lots of people who haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate giving a discount and will complain about it but again, I smile and say “It’s the cost of doing business, Jimbo!” and he grumbles back to work.

      But I don’t work for jackholes who pay someone the same wage for SIX YEARS of expanding duties. I started out doing data entry for around that much, almost 20 years ago. As soon as I took more under my belt, each boss, each one, threw money at me to stay put.

      This is why when my old bosses call me, I answer their calls and have went back countless times to help out [for consultant rate money and travel fees.]

      1. Salamander*

        Yup. There’s a certain kind of business owner that congratulates themselves on paying people as little as possible and just views people as an expense to cut corners with. They view people as overhead. And then there’s another kind who views people as an investment that grows the business. I absolutely respond to old bosses who are in the second category and will do my best to help them out.

    2. AnotherRedHeadedOne*

      Exactly. They have clearly shown their true selves. Please convey to your cousin that what they are stealing from her is TIME. It can not be returned. She needs a raise now and a way to leave by her graduation. And perhaps a search for a true business mentor? Focus on taking those skills and energy into marketable activities to move forward.

  28. bunniferous*

    Run hard and fast away from this. She can get another job. She SHOULD get another job if they won’t give her a raise. This is ridiculous and will look bad on her resume precisely because of the low pay.

    1. RB*

      Very good point about the resume. I feel like that’s a big thing that’s being missed here. She won’t even be able to use this crappy job as a jumping off point into something better because it won’t be a great reference.

  29. Mayflower*

    Both sides in this story are off. On one hand, the owners should bring wages up from $10/hour, that’s just incredibly low for any geographical location and skill level. And if the owners are taking advantage of a young person by making promises they have no intentions on keeping, they should stop. I say if because I have a hard time believing that the owners flat-out suggested that they will give away their positive cash flow generating business to your cousin. You say they’ve “hinted that they may leave the business to her free of charge” but people often hear what they want to hear.

    On the other hand, you have to be incredibly naive to think that your cousin is near-running the business. I have no doubt that she is doing a great job but you can’t credit her for the online presence, all the international sales, and so on. It does your cousin no favors to paint the owners as a clueless elderly couple who doesn’t know how to run a business in today’s international, digital world, and your cousin as a behind-the-scenes “secret CEO”. She would do better to research the job market for the job she is actually performing (social media, light technical support, etc.) and come to the owners with well-founded salary numbers in hand.

    1. Georgina Fredricka*

      I was thinking along these lines too – she wouldn’t be the first person to fall into the assumption that “they could never do it without me!” and allowing that to fuel herself instead of, well, a fair wage.

      It is entirely possible that they could replace the cousin, and that it *wouldn’t* be that difficult – by now they may understand the process for selling orders online, or they can hire someone else who does. It sounds like she’s built a nice digital business, but she’s not the first or last person to have experience running a digital platform. Of course I doubt it would be possible to pay $10 an hour again, but maybe they assumed she would move on after school, they would hire a new student for $14, and keep the cycle going, and they actually could accommodate paying her more right now without much issue.

      I’m wary of anyone who considers themselves irreplaceable – and even if they are – * do not * use that as your justification for accepting low wages!

      Ask for more, or get more. She says she could take those skills and run her own business – so do it! Why wait for someone else to pay you if you can pay yourself?

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I didn’t really get that from the OP’s cousin. . .maybe some from the OP, but she says she’s kidding about the underpaid CEO bit. I didn’t hear the OP say, “My cousin says she runs this business.” I think the cousin is starting to see her value, but I don’t think she has an over-inflated view of herself.

      No one is irreplaceable, but a jack-of-all-trades for $10/hr is hard to come by.

      1. Mayflower*

        I wasn’t referring to the underpaid CEO joke, I was referring to things like this:

        My cousin has expanded the business so much that they now make sales in all 50 states, Canada, and Australia.

        There is just about zero chance that the cousin expanded the business internationally while being a full-time college student. Most likely, she did something along the lines of configuring international modules in whatever shopping cart software they are using, VAT taxes in whatever accounting software they are using, and so on.

        If she really did expand the business internationally – securing strategic meetings with important international partners, leading negotiations, and so on – she would not be afraid to bring up a raise with a couple she’s known for 6 years. It just doesn’t add up.

        1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

          My guess was that the truth was somewhere in between “set up the Square Space module for Canada” and “created Canadian supply chains and launched an international subsidiary.” My guess was that this person has some decent talent for marketing and grew the business by bringing it online in a savvy way, maybe doing some SEO and promoting the product in clever ways. That’s a lot of value to bring to a micro-business, I think.

        2. Jackalope*

          I mean, how many young 20 somethings feel comfortable negotiating for their salaries? How many letters has Alison fielded on that subject? Being able to set all of this up doesn’t necessarily transfer to salary negotiation skills.

        3. Autumnheart*

          I mean, even getting a shopping cart to work that way is a big achievement. Those things are complicated.

    3. Jackalope*

      A part of this website is taking people at their word when they write in. You are assuming that the OP (or her cousin) is either exaggerating to the point of hyperbole or flat-out lying. Even if you consider it impossible that a) she is doing all of these things (which for a tech savvy woman working for the company for SIX years seems plausible) and b) that the owners would have hinted at giving her the business when they retire (which many other people commenting in the thread have expressed belief in based on the fact that they too had similar experiences), your answer is completely changing the OP’s situation and is therefore not helpful.

      1. Georgina Fredrika*

        I don’t think either of them are lying/don’t think that’s what anyone was necessarily implying, but for an online business you can go from local shop to selling in 50 states just by adjusting where your FB ads land; it is not much more difficult, really, than selling to one state. That is just how online merchandising works now.

        The cousin is feeling so personally invested in the business BECAUSE of how much she’s grown it, but I think it’s worth seeing it as “she did them a favor getting them up to speed” not, “I need to own this business because I did so much for it.”

        1. Esmeralda*

          Even if that’s what she did, she did actually DO it, it’s clearly not something the owners were able to do.

          I don’t see either the OP or the OP’s cousin taking the position that “I need to own this business because I did so much for it.” What I see is, the OP cousin did a LOT for this business (even if it looks like small or obvious or easy things, they are things the owners didn’t do and pretty obviously didn’t know they could do), the owners have in some way promised the business to the OP cousin (yes, people do say stuff like this all the time). She didn’t “do them a favor,” she did good work, it sounds like she was resourceful, and she helped the business a lot.

        2. lemon*

          It depends on how much you’re selling and on what platform you’re using. Sure, shipping a single t-shirt to Canada isn’t that much harder than shipping a single t-shirt to California. But shipping 200 t-shirts to Canada is a whole different story. Setting up an Amazon Vendor Central account or handling orders for Ingram Micro is a whole different game than selling direct to consumers on Shopify.

          I was in a similar situation as the OP’s cousin basically running someone’s entire e-commerce business, and it started as shipping orders direct to consumers, which is pretty simple. But it quickly evolved to me being in charge of bulk shipments as they expanded their wholesale business. And that involves a lot of work (figuring out customs, booking freight, palletizing shipments, making sure you’re following vendor shipping requirements).

          I have no idea if that’s what the OP’s cousin is doing. But why not take OP at her word that her cousin is doing a lot of work (especially considering that she must have started all this when she was about 15 or 16 years old) and is underpaid, rather than finding ways to downplay the work she’s doing. I don’t think the OP is saying that her cousin is entitled to own the business, just to be paid more.

      2. Mayflower*

        Another part of this website is not making ad hominem attacks. These are stressful times but I would appreciate it if you didn’t twist my words into something ugly. I did not accuse OP of lying. I did not say or imply that women are incapable of being technically savvy or accomplishing things. And just because you personally dislike my perspective, doesn’t mean that others could not benefit from it. There is a world of difference between “I did not find this comment helpful, moving on to other comments” and “YOUR ANSWER IS NOT HELPFUL”.

        1. Hrodvitnir*

          Their comment was not in any way an ad hominem. They didn’t say you said women were incapable of being technically savvy – and you did strongly imply exaggeration unto dishonesty.

          You’ve come on extremely strong with absolute statements about how the description of the situation cannot be accurate and must be wildly exaggerated, which I don’t think is particularly helpful. Sure, the actual depth and breadth of the cousin’s responsibilities here is unknown, but that doesn’t mean the situation presented is impossible.

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        I definitely take OP’s word that this is what their cousin has told them. But we are hearing all this at a considerable remove (OP says that their cousin says that their boss has hinted that…) and there is a lot more room in there for misunderstandings/exaggeration than in most letters. It is also super common for people to feel like “they couldn’t do it without me!”, epecially when they’re feeling underappreciated or are genuinely underpaid, even when that isn’t necessarily true. I wouldn’t phrase it as definitively as Mayflower (if it’s a small business it would be perfectly realistic for OP’s cousin to have made a big difference, expanded internationally etc) but I think it’s a useful perspective.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think a lot of this is also blowing this size of operation out of proportion.

      If there’s only 3 of them, elderly couple and a part time admin, this is not a big scale thing. It’s something that can probably do by one person if they had the energy. And they can make a reasonable living.

      I have known single person/couple operations my entire career. They are cool and really good at what they do, they’re bringing in enough to be comfortable be be their “own boss”. I’m a fan of these people, I’m not talking shit. But it’s not…difficult? It takes passion because you have to sink time into it for somewhat small pay off in the end. Lots of people lack that! But in reality, the setup, the books on this scale, the setup for the website is all with templates…it’s not high stakes.

      Which is why I’m like “If you want to do this, do it yourself.” to the cousin. They probably can do it themselves! But it takes time to establish relationships with suppliers and capital to start up, just keep that in mind. And usually a decent credit rating if you want to get any loans/bank cards.

    5. Original Letter Writer*

      OP here, hoping I can clear up some of the confusion! First, I would never try to dissuade someone from questioning what they read on the internet- a healthy dose of doubt is a good quality in this day and age! But I am here to assure you I did not write the above letter with the intent to exaggerate :) I simply wrote what I knew about the situation and remained intentionally vague to preserve my cousin’s anonymity. I referred to the operation as a “small business” in order to not give the impression that this was a huge company. I would estimate my cousin does 80-90% of the work this operation requires. I would credit her for the online presence- it didn’t exist before she created it.
      Now, to clarify- this is not a huge, international corporation. Yes, many people could and do the job of digital marketing, SEO, and setting up payment platforms. This is in the ballpark of what my cousin introduced and maintains for this business. She also interacts with wholesalers and clients on a daily basis. She has built a large social media following and geographically diverse clientele base that did not exist previous to her doing this job. I’m not saying the owners are “clueless”- I am saying they have not taken the time to learn the new digital systems and have no background in the strategies the business now relies heavily on. Everyone is replaceable, including my cousin! But the knowledge she has concerning the function of the business and its customers could be hard to replicate in a new hire. To Esmerelda’s point, it is more of a “She did what the owners couldn’t or didn’t know how to do”.
      It’s not a high stakes operation in any way and I never claimed it as such. And yes, there are templates and online literature for all of these things. My cousin certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel… she just introduced it to this business LOL!
      You took issue with my wording of “My cousin has expanded the business so much that they now make sales in all 50 states, Canada, and Australia.” I don’t think my statement necessarily implied that she secured strategic partnerships, lead negotiations, or their products were being stocked in international stores. It just meant that her efforts have lead to sales being made to international customers, which wouldn’t have been made otherwise. I can see where there is room for misinterpretation, but that doesn’t automatically equal exaggeration or naivety. If anything, it was a bit of bragging on my part because I am proud of what she has accomplished :)

      Thank you to everyone for their interest in my letter and comments! Different viewpoints help create a more informed decision, which is precisely what I hoped this exercise would accomplish. I responded with an update and some more notes below before this response, so feel free to read that as well!

  30. Cubular Belles*

    Cousin can go free lance, take those same skills and do that process for other companies. Taking other “Brick and Mortar” companies virtual would be a great way to leverage her experience from the current company. Yes, ask for a raise if you prefer to stay but, seriously consider becoming a consultant. This is a key skill set in the current economy and it would provide more income instantly (providing it’s priced right) and more flexibility for college courses.
    There are lots of other companies out there and they might even treat her better, like right away! Of course, she can give the original company at 10% discount on her skills going forward, to show them the value of customer loyality.

  31. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Two anecdotes for you:

    My parents are in their 80s. They’ve been running a small business for almost 50 years. They frequently talk about stepping away and retiring. Yet when I try to help or take over certain duties, they undermine me or try to undo the improvements I made because they don’t like them. Constantly. For example, there was a potential buyer for the whole business, and they’d known for over a year and didn’t tell me even though they were thinking it over.

    Ever heard of the documentary Jiro Dreams of a Sushi? That guy has two sons who have been waiting FOR YEARS to take over the business completely. Jiro is 94 and is still working.

    1. Mystery Bookworm*

      I think that first point is particularly salient. When I was in college, “older” covered a lot of ages. I know plenty of people who have worked well into their 80s, all while musing about retirement for 20 years.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        It’s totally okay to not want to ever retire. My husband wants to do it now; I never want to do it.

        But the point is to be honest to those around you who may want to make decisions on whether or not you plan to retire.

        I don’t know why this is so hard to admit for some people.

  32. irene adler*

    Unless the owner’s retirement is FULLY funded, they are not gonna give anything away. Why would they? They are going to want/need $ to retire on.

    They’ll offer cousin the opportunity to buy the business -at a slight discount -over a stranger purchasing the business. That will be their gift to her for her years of undercompensated work.

    1. Artemesia*

      Or a deal where she continues to pay them huge amounts and thus can’t get ahead herself. She shouldn’t take it ‘for free’ even if they continue a financial interest in it.

  33. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I’ve known a few examples of founder/owners gifting their small business to a non-family employee but often times it’s done incrementally — for example, gifting 10% ownership of the business per year in order to stay under gift tax limits. If that’s the case, and they are really serious about giving it to her so they can retire, they’ll really need to start immediately and she probably won’t be a full owner for several years. There are tax implications for the cousin if they just gift it to her whole and she may not be able to handle it. It’s like winning a new car on a game show — you still have to pay tax…in cash.

    1. Artemesia*

      There are ways around gift taxes by allowing low cost buy outs too. Obviously a lawyer would be involved to make sure any changes were legal.

  34. Hiring Mgr*

    She should without question ask for a raise, but like others I’d assume the leaving her the business part won’t happen.

    Also, while I’m sure your cousin has done phenomenally well, there’s still a big difference between doing what she’s been doing and actually owning the entire thing yourself. (in reference to where the cousin says she can open up her own biz)

  35. NW Mossy*

    I’ve had the opportunity over the last decade to closely observe a microbusiness that shares one salient feature with this one – owners past retirement age but talking in vague generalities about passing the business to employees.

    What I’ve learned is that taking over an existing business is fiendishly complex and not for the faint of heart. It takes all the hard-mode issues of small business owners, taxes, emotional investment in work, valuation of a private company, and chucks the whole lot into a blender. Getting this done in a way that actually works for all parties to the deal is like planning a manned mission to Mars – it can hypothetically be done, but requires masses of advance planning and a large helping of luck to pull off.

    Any business owner that asserts they can just give their business to an employee believes heavily in naivete – their own, their employee’s, or both. Your cousin is much better off starting her own business, which will have its own problems but at least be all of her own creation, rather than unknown inherited ones.

    1. Artemesia*

      A BIL just sold a huge very very successful business to some of his professional employees and he continues working there but with much reduced responsibility. It can be done but it is very complicated and requires carefully negotiated legal paperwork. Not going to happen with this mom and pop operation.

    2. Corporate Lawyer*

      THIS. I’m a corporate lawyer (hence my handle) who has worked on lots of corporate acquisitions and divestitures over the years, and the process is massively complex and expensive, even for sophisticated, experienced management teams. As I read the letter, I found myself shaking my head and saying out loud to LW’s cousin, “oh, no, this is NOT what you want, believe me!”

  36. Laufey*

    Chiming in as someone who values companies for a living – there will likely be major tax implications if they owners give the stock of the company free of charge, or even for a nominal price ($1). Every dollar below fair market value would count as a gift (or compensation!) and would therefore be taxable. So even if she gets the company (instead of asking for a wage), that will still have major financial implications for her.

    But yes, add me to the group that don’t expect the owners to leave her the store.

  37. Storie*

    Suggest she ask for her desired salary (Based on research for her role) and if she doesn’t get that immediately leave and start a competing business. She can totally do it from the sounds of the letter.

  38. anon attorney*

    They may mean it when they say it. They may genuinely think that this is what they intend. I’m sure they are nice people and they genuinely like OP’s cousin. But when the time comes to make the actual decision about retirement, either the business is not worth anything (in which case why would the cousin want it) or it is worth something and they will be looking to be paid what it is worth (which cousin will be unable to afford as she is being underpaid).

    If they are serious then why don’t they bring her in as a partner now and give her a cut of profit? If they’re not going to do that they need to pay a sensible salary now. If the business can’t sustain that, then it won’t be able to sustain your cousin even if she inherits it. If she has been able to grow this business in the way described, someone else will pay market value for those skills.

  39. Susana*

    I’m not sure I’d bother asking for a raise. Quit and start your own business. These people don’t know how to run one (without you) and clearly don’t think they need to pay cousin what she deserves.

  40. Just my two cents*

    Big red flags blowing mightily in the breeze here. It’s doubtful they’ll just “give” her the business. There are multiple legal and tax ramifications involved with that scenario. (It would probably be in her best interest to start job searching immediately. I think this arragement is hurting her employability in the future.) If they do “give” the business to her, she needs to definitely have a lawyer involved with all terms spelled out in detail and signed by all parties. No matter how much they protest that “they have her best interests at heart and would never take advantage of her”, doing something like this without the legalities taken care of can become a financial nightmare of gigantic proportions for many years to come. Be the voice of reason here and tell her to not do anything without some sound financial and legal advice.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Why do you think this will hurt her employability in the future?

      She’s in a perfect spot, still in school and getting valuable experience. Especially if she likes small business…it’s a fine setup, the issue here is that she’s grossly underpaid and under-appreciated.

      She can now look for employment stating “I want full time employment and more room to grow my skills, now that I am out of school.” Most small shops who are looking for getting into the social media game or online dealership will find her experience really useful and intriguing. Especially if she is in school for marketing or business *shrugs*

    2. JSPA*

      I have seen a transition like this (partly funded by a crowdfunding campaign); it took many hours with a tax professional to unwind the knots the outgoing owner had tied the business into, avoiding taxes upfront…and a pretty massive cash infusion, and a lot of wrangling over who ended up with the gift tax liability.

      Heck, even passing along your old beater of a car isn’t as simple as handing over the keys…

  41. Jay*

    Honestly, this sounds sort of like a “kitchen table” type business; i.e. a tiny one run out of the home.
    It may very well be that “leaving her the business” amounts to a preexisting supply chain, vendor contacts, maybe a few pieces of machinery.
    More along the lines of Grandpa kept bees and Grandma made candles and canned honey.
    They used to sell at a couple of farmers markets. It wasn’t a lot, but it kept the lights on and the cats fed the last few years so they could put off drawing Social Security for a couple of extra years to get a much better monthly payout. It’s a really common thing in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas.
    Now they get honey and wax from a couple of local beekeepers, and they sell online.
    And $10.00 was an awful lot of money back not even that long ago (the number of times I have to try to explain to my parents that paying a Walmart clerk or McDonalds counterperson $14.00/hour is not a “fortune” and doesn’t mean that milk is going to be $100.00/gal and all the old people are going to starve……) and they don’t really realise that the year starts with a “2” now.
    If this is all this business really is and what she is getting is an open door into a nice side hustle for a young twenty-something, it makes a little more sense (not financially, just, you can see how they got there).
    All that is to say, the overall situation could be terminally out of touch owners and a young employee who feels, right or wrong, that the name, contacts, and supply chain have intrinsic value. Basically:
    Nobody will buy bespoke, artisanal, craftmade, 100% pure, Lime and Sage Beeswax Candles from The Dread Pirate Westley.

    1. Artemesia*

      I am continually astounded at how older people (my age) who are themselves wealthy think 50K is a huge salary. 50 K today would have been less than 7K a year when I started my first full time adult job in 1966. FWIW. I made $5200 that year and was making 8K 4 years later when I quit to go to grad school where I got $16,500 for my first post grad school job (and the 500 was from negotiating hard)

      I have heard talking head on Fox brag about how THEY only made $2.50 an hour when they started out — when that $2.50 then would be 12 or 14 now all while ranting against raising the 7.25 min wage.

      50K while not a terrible starting wage is not big money and it would be difficult to support a family most places. Just as you aren’t going to find a nice home in Boston for 100K or in LA where a crackerbox house pushes a million.

  42. Dust Bunny*

    100% your sister should not rely on these people to leave her the business. They’re far too flaky and out-of-touch. If they haven’t offered her a raise (or perks, or anything) in six years they are already demonstrating that they take her for granted, and I would bet money if their long-lost nephew got out of jail and needed a living or something he’d jump to the front of the line. Or they’ll decide they need to sell it for retirement income. Or the paperwork to transfer ownership will be too onerous/expensive. Or some other thing. And your sister will be high and dry.

    So, yes, she should ask for a review now and proceed with the assumption she has no stake here. If they’re so petty that they’d cut her out because of this, they weren’t reliable to begin with. If they’re sincere, they’ll welcome the interest. But I think she shouldn’t hold her breath.

  43. HarvestKaleSlaw*

    Why would you feed the horse oats when it will pull the plow for hay?

    Your cousin has made these people a ton of money and gotten nothing in return but a McJob wage and some false promises. They will be glad to let her keep on doing that as long as she lets them.

    She should stop making money for other people and start making some for herself. I could cry *for* this woman thinking about what else she could have done with six years of her life and all that hard work and ingenuity. She shouldn’t throw good years after bad.

  44. ...*

    Also I wonder what they are really ‘hinting at’. Maybe by take over or leave to her, they mean have her take all the responsibility and they keep the profits while not working. Lol. Based on their actions doesn’t seem that crazy

  45. agnes*

    This is one time I don’t agree with the advice given. I do not think talking to them about a raise will do anything other than create a lot of drama and make it even more difficult to work with them. It’s time to move on in my humble opinion. She has great skills that she can use to be a digital marketing consultant or something similar, She might even be able to go specifically into the same line of business as these people, depending on the capital outlay required.

    If she really needs a job while she’s doing this, I would bet good money she can find a job s for $10.00 an hour while she’s starting this other venture. She needs to cut her losses. These people have proven that they do not value her work and any more effort she puts into this business benefits them not her. She is AN EMPLOYEE and a seriously underpaid one at that.

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        agreed, but…if asking for a raise up to market level would tank any goodwill she has with the owners, but leaving for a full-time “adult” job (in their mind) would maintain that goodwill and reference, she would be better off leaving quickly with as much grace as possible.

        As for the digital marketing consultant…maybe. If what she did was set up an out-of-the-box Etsy store, PayPal/Venmo account, and a business Facebook page, I don’t think she really has the skills for a professional marketing consultant.

  46. Public Sector Manager*

    I had this happen to me when I was a very green attorney in private practice.

    Rather than retire, the first attorney I worked for wanted to open a new office and wanted me to manage that new office. At the time he was underpaying me, paying me late, withholding wages if a client didn’t pay the bill on the case I worked on, illegally moved me from a W-2 employee to independent contractor (and I had to absorb the accompanying tax hit), took away my free parking because of a perceived slight, told my coworker that his job would be waiting for him if he went to rehab and fired him 2 weeks after getting out of rehab, saying “I can’t trust a drunk.” I tolerated all of it because I thought there would be a partnership in it for me. Why I would want to partner with a person like that is beyond me.

    After 18 months of waiting for nothing, I gave notice. I technically shouldn’t have had to give notice, because I technically wasn’t an employee after all. And I gave him 30 days notice to accommodate a pre-planned vacation he had with his family. He said we’d talk more about it when he came back from vacation. Even ran his dysfunctional office for 2 weeks during his vacation. When he came back, we spoke in depth about why I was leaving. When I told him one of the reasons was that I was tired of waiting for the partnership that would never happen, he tried to turn it all on me–“I really wanted to do it with you, but you didn’t express enough interest in it!” He had all the power to make it happen yet placed all the blame at my feet.

    Story ends with me having to threaten to sue him to get my last check out of him. I should have reported him to the Labor Commission. He was a total scum bag.

    For the OP, unless there is something in writing, your cousin likely will not get anything. Your cousin’s employer is going to sell their business and not simply give it away.

  47. Anon for this*

    She’d probably be better off to ask for the raise and use the experience to do this work for a larger organization. I have been on interview teams for our marketing department for social media coordinators, and someone with her track record would be highly competitive as half the people who apply think the fact that they use Facebook gives them job experience…

    Also, I’m assuming this is 1. An older couple who are well meaning but will likely not be able to give her the business “free of charge.” or 2. Her misunderstanding their intentions. Additionally, if my parents owned a business and all of a sudden decided to give it to an employee free of charge I’d honestly be worried that they had been taken advantage of. I am not suggesting this is happening, just that this couple’s family will be wary of this if they do in fact attempt to gift the business to her. She is much better off to ask for the raise now and be thankful for the experience she’s been able to get there.

  48. Data Analyst*

    Honestly, even if they really truly mean to give her the business free of charge, these are people who don’t sound like they have a lot of integrity. It is AWFUL to go on paying $10/hr for everything she’s doing. And they’ve shown themselves to be unreasonable re: discounts etc. They are not people that a young, inexperienced (because even though she’s done a lot for this one business, big picture she is inexperienced) person should get enmeshed with. Who knows what shady or unreasonable stuff they might do if things get complicated in the process of handing it over.

    1. Artemesia*

      Even if she grossly overstates her value to the business she is being hugely underpaid. Time to find another job and think beyond graduation — either starting her own business or working for a competently run business for awhile while she plans her future.

  49. Sparkelle*

    With small closely held micro-businesses like this, the owners are taking out all of the excess cash at every opportunity as their compensation. That’s if they’re doing it right and not just using the business account as their personal piggy bank. So unless hard assets are necessarily involved in the business, and they aren’t mortgaged to the hilt, there is little value in the business except goodwill (established clients, reputation, community awareness). The usual way to deal with it is to sell the business to the employee with the sale price being paid in instalments from the business profits going forward. This may or may not be a reasonable deal, but it is definitely not a gift. She will lose the business if she can’t make the payments. She needs to get paid appropriately for her work regardless of any future business arrangement. There may be a lot of resistance, since any increase in the cost of doing business (more salary expense) comes directly out of the owners’ take home.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      “using the business account as their personal piggy bank. ” I bet that’s exactly what they’re doing, and the titles to their personal cars and maybe even their house are in the name of the company as business assets (especially since they are now running it completely online), which they’ll want to of course remove from the business before gifting/selling it. There could be value in an established client list, vendor contracts, and reputation, depending on the type of business; but if that’s the real value, then the “former” owners could torpedo the business at any time after they’re out if the cousin displeases them in any way, thereby keeping the cousin under their thumb…like an employee, but not.

  50. Hobbit*

    OP, please urge your cousin take Alison’s advice. Just because they are leaving doesn’t mean she can’t get paid correctly, besides, if they are the type that would fire someone for asking for a raise, why would anyone want to work for them?

    I waited for someone to retire to apply for their job. Another employee told me she had been promised the job. She got the job and I didn’t, which was fine, bc that department turned into a toxic mess. The point is don’t wait around for others when it comes to your life goals.

    1. LTL*

      “don’t wait around for others when it comes to your life goals”

      I feel like I should have this framed somewhere.

  51. yala*

    “she would be able to create her own business using the skills she has learned and contacts made while working this position.”

    I mean, tbh? She should just do that now.

    Six YEARS at ten dollars an hour? That’s ridiculous. And given that that’s what they’ve done, I wouldn’t trust them to make good on those hints, at all.

    I mean, yeah, definitely see about a raise now, but if not, and if she’s got the ability? Why NOT just make her own business, since she’s already doing so much of the work anyway?

  52. Jean*

    They’re setting her up for some gaslighting down the line – they have no actual intention of leaving her anything, and are using that as an excuse to take advantage and treat her poorly because “oh maybe if you keep taking our crap we’ll reward you in the future.” I’d bet money on it.

  53. Original Letter Writer*

    Hi Everyone,

    Original Letter Writer here. First of all, thank you Allison for that straightforward advice. Sometimes it is much easier to see the red flags after writing it all out and hearing from someone with expertise! Hearing from you about how flimsy the hints/suggestions of them leaving Cousin the business solidified my belief that she shouldn’t rely on what they say. I think my Cousin was more likely to believe them when they made these comments because she values the business and wants them to value her just as much. The script is excellent and she feels empowered to use it and get that raise!
    A Small Update: I’ve shown my cousin Allison’s response (we were very excited she picked our letter to reply to!) and Cousin said it confirmed all of her gut instincts about the situation. She’s in a tricky spot- she is relying on the income right now, but knows there needs to be a change. She is taking this advice to heart and is reevaluating her situation- asking for a raise, branching off with her own operation, all possibilities.
    Thank you to the commenters who responded so encouragingly about her starting her own business, taking her skills elsewhere, and asking for a raise! It was so nice to be able to show her what people were saying! So many of you had 1) great knowledge and ideas about how she could proceed, 2) personal anecdotes that show you can’t trust what someone says!, and 3) additional considerations/viewpoints she may not have considered. The comments about what could happen if she did get the business were extremely helpful viewpoints.
    I wanted to give some additional info for the commenters:
    -From my understanding, she has a very good idea of the books and financial state of the business because she is so involved
    -The business is not as sophisticated as to have multiple investors, foreign contracts or huge distribution centers, but my cousin implemented a degree of technology (think implementing new POS system, digital marketing, web design) that changed the way they are able to operate.
    -My intent was not to overstate her workload or give the impression that she/I think Cousin is irreplaceable. She is quite humble about the whole situation, I was the one who compiled everything she has done for them into the letter above. The work and improvements she made did lead to international sales via their website, which were not happening prior to her being employed there. Especially because she made the website :) lol!

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughts! I was so glad to be able to show my cousin this thread- hopefully, it’s that last boost of confidence she needs to make the change and start asking questions.

    1. Original Letter Writer*

      Oops! Forgot a couple of points:
      – I would like to think the owners made these “hints” out of a good-natured lapse in judgment, but the writing on the wall indicates it is probably a combination of that and stringing her along/not being totally serious. I don’t think the owners are malicious, but definitely a little manipulative. And reluctant to adapt to the digital world.
      -The “Free of charge” comment was probably misleading on my part. I meant that when they have hinted that they would pass the business onto her, they didn’t phrase it as letting her buy the business. I meant to point out that they have alluded to the fact that she would be gifted it for her hard work. Sorry for the confusion! And of course, there are all of the tax laws to consider. The reason I wrote the letter in the first place was because I felt so out of my element giving advice on what is more of a legal/contract matter. Obviously, it is very far fetched to expect a business for free. That’s why their reluctance to give a raise, but readiness to fork over a business seemed so odd and prompted me to ask for advice.

      1. LTL*

        Thanks for providing a small update! I can completely understand that your cousin needs the income, but keep in mind that unless the owners are horribly unreasonable, they won’t fire her for asking for a raise. The worst they’ll say is no.

      2. Colette*

        There are people who won’t say something until they’ve thought it through and settled on a final plan; there are others who talk ideas out and don’t necessarily intend to follow through (they might! But they haven’t settled on what they’re going to do yet.) It’s possible the owners are in the second category – they’re not necessarily stringing your cousin along, but she’s taking their comments more seriously than they are.

      3. emmelemm*

        As LTL says, I understand that she’s relying on the income, but even in these pandemic times it *should not be difficult* to find a job that can pay her $10/hr (or more, of course!). Especially since she has good and *demonstrable* office/administrative/technical/etc. skills.

        1. Rebecca*

          If they won’t give her a pay raise, she could give notice, and find a part time job at Target, Walmart, etc. that pay more than $10/hour. Starting wages at Sheetz (gas station/convenience store) are posted as $12/hour here. If she could get a job for $15/hour, she could cut her hours back to 20 per week, still make the same amount of money, and have more time for studying or for herself.

            1. Jaid*

              LOL, As far as I can tell, they don’t usually exist in the same locations, so not much of a fight. More folks would recognize 7-11, though…which is even international.

              (Sigh, some Mikey Chen/Strictly Dumpling videos when he visits 7-11’s in Asia are enough to make me weep with how CLEAN they are.)

              But I digress. OP, your cousin has already shown herself to be talented and self-driven. She’ll go far, even if it’s not with these people. Best wishes to her!

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            If you get out of the office-work game, you will often not have an easy time re-entering it. Even with the past experience. Future employers aren’t keen on “I worked 6 years doing administrative work, then I quit to go work part time at Costco stocking shelves.” they don’t like the “rust” you pick up outside of the standard office setup. I’ve literally seen this kill people’s ability to get out of retail. Do not. Do not. Ever go to retail unless you absolutely need to. Especially not during a pandemic and record unemployment rates.

            I understand the financial point here but if your goal is to work in the backoffice, don’t take a labor job just for the cash aspects, it’s short sighted and you can get hella burnt.

            1. UrbanChic*

              I don’t think this is true in all cases. People who need to work during college for money often stand out in the labor market. The last five people we’ve hired came out of retail – and I run a nonprofit with an entirely professional staff. We interpret people with work experience to be hardworking – regardless of where they logged time. If the OPs cousin needs money and retail or Starbucks is where to make it – I hope she would do so without fear of it harming her future career aspirations.

      4. Carlie*

        Honestly, if she’s still in college and is short on time (as most college students are), depending on what the minimum wage is where she is she’d be better off just going down the street to the nearest grocery store or fast food place and taking a job there – doesn’t need to go looking for a comparable position. She already has all the experience she needs to have a great resume, and for a year or two until she graduates she could have a job with fewer hours that pays more and doesn’t tax her brainpower in the same way. And I would think the change could very easily be explained by saying she needed more flexible hours because of college than any regular business could provide.

      5. lazy intellectual*

        Thank you for the update and for looking out for your cousin. I really want to emphasize how valuable/competitive your cousin’s skills are for someone who isn’t yet out of college. I can already see her accomplishments-based resume: “Expanded sales to x states and countries and by xxxx times” or something. I’m in a manager position but haven’t done anything remotely equivalent to this! She basically did what a CFO or Chief Marketing Officer does but without the title and pay. I hope your cousin realizes her worth and doesn’t undersell herself when job hunting. So many companies will want her!

    2. Kimmy Schmidt*

      Thanks for the update! I’d love to hear another one when your cousin decides what path she’s going to take and how it goes for her.

  54. de-lurking for this*

    Pleeeeeeease tell your cousin not to plan to own that business! A family friend is in the same boat – underpaid, overworked, but kept with it on the promise that the owners would turn the business over to him. It’s been over 10 years now, with nothing still in writing and the owners are in the midst of a messy divorce so who knows if the business will even survive. She needs to get paid her worth NOW or jump ship.

    1. RB*

      Another great reason not to wait for someone to sell you their business or pass it down to you. Circumstances change! The divorce is a perfect example. This happened to a friend of mine who owned his own pest-control business, 15 employees. When he went through the divorce he had to scale the business way down and pull most of the cash out of it. The business is now just him and one part-timer.

  55. employment lawyah*

    It’s possible they will transfer her the business but it’s HIGHLY unlikely that they will do it for free. Rather they will find a friend / lawyer / family member who will tell them to sell it to her and they will listen to that advice. The better she makes the business now, the more valuable it gets and the LESS likely they are to give it to her!!

    Anyway. I would probably plan to leave. These are valuable skills and you could start your own competing company, especially if you don’t have a noncompete and if they don’t have a clue about what is going on. You can make plans to that effect, to some degree, you should talk to a lawyer in your state to know how far you can push the competition angle. Then, you can hit them with an ultimatum, if you want a last chance to avoid a move.

    Normally I would advise earlier and more open negotiations–but it seems like your friend is such a pushover ($10/hour? Seriously?), and/or these folks are so clueless or mean, that it seems unlikely to work. But you can try that, of course.

  56. Lisa Large*

    Your cousin is being used and will never receive the business! I have heard (and lived) this same story over and over. She needs to cut her losses and find a new job, these people are typical users.

  57. Salsa Verde*

    I think the sooner one can learn to not put stock in hints or innuendo, the better off one will be. The letter writer says they have HINTED that they MIGHT leave the business to the cousin. The fact that she is scared that asking for a raise will cause them to not leave her the business speaks volumes to me as well – none of this is real.

    She should definitely ask for a raise and/or go get another job or start her own business, and if she is really invested in getting this particular business, she should have a serious talk with them and ask for something in writing. Anything less is nothing at all.

  58. animaniactoo*

    Expect that these people will do what makes the best business sense to them. Which means they are not retiring on the profits they have already received from the business. They will sell the business <for the value it currently holds.

    And if she wants to be in a position to buy it from them she better start raising capital right now. She has already been underpaid for years. She needs to advocate for herself to be paid what she is worth NOW and she can save everything she gets over the $10/hr towards buying them out when they decide to go… or funding her own startup costs when she goes into business for herself.

    Frankly, I suspect they will attempt to replace her as soon as she asks for more money. And they will either have stickershock over the worth of her services or they will let her go and the business will go to pot because they’re extremely unlikely to find somebody who can *capably* do everything she has been doing for them for anywhere near what they’ve been paying her.

  59. Someone Else*

    Ugh, I think I worked for these same people more than 6 years ago. I lasted 3 weeks before resigning after the “work” needed grew beyond the $10 an hour they “graciously” agreed to pay me. Hint, they said they needed an admin assistant, and it grew to a Marketing Coordinator, Website Designer, Contract Specialist, Sales and Estimating, and so much more. The job ad listed data entry and answering phones along with minimum invoicing and PO’s.

    Her wage is only fair for someone performing the duties of a CEO if the company’s income is under 100K and she has partial revenue share, which we know she doesn’t. They are taking advantage of her with a capital A! Skills like that, even at a small company are very marketable, and she could easily go somewhere else, and make more than $10 an hour.

  60. Frenchi Too*

    If these people are too stingy to pay her a decent competitive wage now I seriously doubt they will become so generous as to give her the entire business. That’s just their cover to string her along and get as much out of her without any real investment.
    Frankly, it would be in her best interest to either look for work elsewhere, and/or market her skills and start her own business providing services for companies going from in person to virtual sales. Do some realistic market research before launching a new business.
    The general feel of this letter reminds of how some wealthy people manipulate their family to do their bidding by using a possible inheritance as an incentive. I think they are doing something similar, manipulating her to keep working for peanuts with no real intention of gifting her the business.
    When she does ask how they plan to pass on the business to her they will might try to make her feel guilty. “What? you don’t care about our deaths? you are so greedy!”

  61. Bibliovore*

    Haven’t had time to read all the comments but was anyone else struck that this has all the tropes for a murder mystery?
    Maybe I am watching too many Major Crimes reruns during the weekends.

    1. S. Ninja*

      Same (similarly, I saw a bunch of Perry Masons over the weekend….) Now we just need the rest of the suspect pool.

    2. scribblingTiresias*

      The letter was very well-written, and the person who needs help is the LW’s young cousin…
      OP, you don’t happen to be a famous writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, do you?

  62. Seeking Second Childhood*

    The work she’s done already could be spun into one heck of a resume for a contract or permanent part-time position that would pay her a LOT more for working fewer hours! Heck, it might be enough to have someone offer her a full-time permanent position even without the college degree.
    (*note: if that happens, I suggest she negotiates to have them pay her to continue taking classes, with flex schedule to take a daytime class if/when a degree requirement is not offered at night.)

  63. Trek*

    I would have your cousin draft a resume and start job hunting. She could have other offers quickly in case she’s afraid they will fire her when she asks for a raise.

    Your cousin needs to sit down with both and have a discussion about her raise immediately. If they bring up the ownership of the business she should tell them you can discuss this at a later date. Right now she needs to focus on her income. If they say no she needs to say ‘I need to take off next week to think about what’s right for me.’ It’s not a discussion let them go one week with no phone calls, no support. Yes they may fire her but I think they will realize how much they need her as well. Bottom line she needs a job that pays her what she’s worth while she starts her own business.

    Finally have a heart to heart with her and tell her she can never under value her services again. She should never go more than 18 months without a raise and that’s after she’s being paid what she’s worth. she should also keep this in mind if/when she’s a boss so she treats her employees fairly.

  64. spaghetti and meatballs*

    She’s not getting the business. I doubt she’s getting a raise. What she does have, though, is a pretty great resume to take her to a job that will pay her what she’s worth.

  65. (insert name here)*

    These people are never going to “give” anyone their business. When they do retire they will either sell the company to someone who can afford to give them a lump sum which will fund their retirement, or they will just dissolve the whole venture and sell off any assets. They will not leave money on the table or give her anything. That’s clear from the lack of raises.

    Most likely someone will get sick or just tired of doing the work and they will instead run the business into insolvency. Or they will get sick and some child or niece or nephew will step in to help them and that person will push your cousin out.

    Either way, your cousin will never, ever get this business. She should be prepared to quit. Frankly, even if they realize how much they need her to keep their business afloat and give her a significant raise, they will still find ways to take advantage of her because that is the way they operate.

    I bet you $10 that if they gave her a real raise, it would bankrupt their business.

    Either they know that they are paying half or less than half the going rate, or they are too incompetent to keep this business afloat and as soon as she stops carrying the load it will collapse on them.

    Either way, she should get out.

  66. Anon Accountant*

    Proceed as through they aren’t leaving her the business. My old boss told my coworker repeatedly she was building “sweat equity” and she grew his client base 70%+ in 10 years.

    He sold the firm to a competitor and he told her she should be grateful to have a job.

    He’d promised her for years he was signing it over to her. Empty promises until anyone has a contract in hand. He lied to her when directly asked about when he was retiring/succession plans. Happy ending- she started her own accounting practice and took back most of the clients she’d brought in.

  67. Perpal*

    If they were going to do right by her in the future, they’d be doing right by her now by a) paying her a fair wage and b) actively talking about how she will transition and when, maybe even working on a contract.
    Your cousin should ask for a wage that’s what she’s worth and be prepared to GTFO when they balk and/or try to fob off some vague promises instead

  68. Paul Pearson*

    “the owners have hinted that they may retire soon and leave the business to her”

    I am the most cynical of cynics but oh, the number of times I’ve seen people paid in promises or expectations which never actually happen rather than real spending money. If a promise isn’t backed up in writing, and certainly if it rests on hints, then I’d be incredibly leery of relying on it

  69. mimsie*

    $10 an hour is shockingly exploitative. This is a not a business she wants to inherit, there is something fishy going on with their accounts.

    “The better she makes the business now, the more valuable it gets and the LESS likely they are to give it to her!!” Repeated for truth. The more work she puts into this business (without increased pay), inflates the value of the business and they will be more likely to sell for a lump sum to an external buyer.

    She’s not going to learn anything more from these people. She should get a job on campus (they will all pay more than this), save money and start up a competitor business.

  70. That guy*

    It seems to me that these owners need the cousin far more than she needs them. She seems to think that she needs this income for school, but the owners need her to keep their business viable. She has more power in this situation than she thinks.

  71. lazy intellectual*

    She’s not getting the business. The business owners are incompetent at a lot of things – there is no reason the cousin should take them seriously when they vaguely promise they will leave the business to her.

    Also, the cousin has more leverage here than she realizes. She can always get another job/source of income if she leaves the business, but the business will crash without her. She should definitely ask for a raise. It sucks how young people get tricked into thinking they can’t ask for raises because it might hurt their career, when it’s a very normal part of any job.

  72. Former Retail Manager*

    No time to read all the other comments, so apologies for any repeat, but these people are NOT going to gift her their business, especially if it has been both spouses sole source of income for an extended period and they don’t have other businesses they run. They are stringing her along to get her to keep running their business and seem to be so out of touch that they likely don’t know how much work she is really doing and that, without her, their business likely may no longer exist. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this same story from friends who worked for small business owners…..the repeated promises of leaving the business to the longest employed/most loyal employee or the promise of a huge promotion when the owner retires. Money talks, and bulls*** walks, as the saying goes. If anyone expresses an interest in buying them out, I assure you, they will sell. Your cousin needs to advocate for a raise in a well reasoned manner and have research to back it up. If they can’t reach an agreement, she needs to take her skills elsewhere. Maybe then these people will realize how much work she really did. And regardless, when she finishes college (which is likely soon based on the timeline in the letter), she should be looking elsewhere anyway. It’s highly unlikely that this small business is going to be able to pay her market rate or provide decent benefits.

    1. boop the first*

      Yeah, people talk crap about large, corporate businesses and how invisible it makes workers feel, but having written policies and always knowing what to expect is such a breath of fresh air after jumping from one small biz to the next: not knowing when you’re working, arbitrary pay differences, constant lies and promises, unable to schedule vacations, blurry job descriptions, it’s always a total mess.

  73. Don’t Think About a Cat*

    I’m thinking of two colleagues of mine, both incredibly gifted, who were hired on as associates with vague promises about being able to buy the businesses someday. Both put their heart and soul into building a clientele and making the business grow. Both ended up getting shut out when the owners sold to corporations. One was asked during the sale process about her intentions to stay—the owner had been using her skills and work ethic as sales points for the business as a whole. She just laughed. Her last day was the day the sale went through. She owns her own place now, far more successful than the first had ever been.

    Sort of the same thing happened to me, except I did end up buying the business. After my years of effort, though, the value of the business had increased nearly 100%. I ended up costing myself a lot of money.

  74. Firecat*

    Late to this, but if your are still reading OP your cousin is not getting this business.

    My spouse went through a very similar experience. Older married owners built the business. Underpaid him illegally because despite him being salaried the amount of OT put his base hourly wage below minimum. He did so much for them – contracted out their website, developed a massive database that led to real investigative scoops and the like, doubled their readership, tripled their grant income, expanded their target audience to include millennials – a group they were convinced at the time had no interest in politics or social justice issues (ha!) and much much more!

    Well they heard my job search included out of area ones. That’s when the hints about retiring and handing the business over to him started.

    A few months later, he asked about the possibility of working from home for a while so we could save for another car. My car had been totaled and between my medical bills and both our low paying jobs replacing it was a stretch. They knew all of this.

    They said no way – you can’t work remotely and that he had to be in the office on Monday. So we got a car loan that weekend and went into debt.

    Guess what? They laid off my spouse on Friday!

    When he expressed hurt about the financial position they put him in regarding purchasing a car to commute, they said it was “just business” and that it was unreasonable of him to expect that they would tell him about the lay off a week before just to prevent him from buying a car. Beside he may not have worked as hard if they told him on Monday that his last day was Friday.

    Moral of the story? Crummy people are crummy people. Anyone who uses “it’s just business” as an excuse to be nasty, under pay, or short thrift those they have wronged are doing just that. Making excuses for their outright nasty behavior.

    Your cousins best bet, if she’s learned all she is going to learn from them, is to secure another role applying those skills or lay low and build up her own business skills to compete with them. You can ask for a raise but I doubt you will get one. They will probably guy her for even asking. Manipulative people are gonna manipulate.

  75. boop the first*

    I would be really concerned/skeptical about what the owners mean when they say hand over the business. Do they mean hand it over in its entirety including all income?

    Or do they mean hand over control and duties at $10/hour while they survive their retirement on that income?

  76. Elbe*

    Are these people doing a significant amount of work for the business?

    If not – if the LW’s cousin is doing most or all of it – then they have no motivation to retire, ever. They would basically just be owners, and you can be an owner until you pass. They have a very nice set up here of having someone else do the bulk of the work while they reap the benefits, and it may be actively slowing down their retirement timeline if she continues to take up work that they want to get off of their own plates.

    Leaving the business to her for free would be a massive kindness, but it seems very unlikely to happen. She should definitely talk to them about their plans and ask for a raise if they don’t have any solid plans for a change of ownership in mind. Her tasks have increased, so her job title and pay should increase as well.

  77. mgguy*

    Here’s another hypothetical that comes to mind:

    Let’s say the business is being operated profitably with all bills current and everything above board(aside from the low pay for their most valuable employee)

    Let’s also say that the couple fully INTENDS to figuratively “hand over the keys” to the LW’s cousin free and clear-just say “it’s yours now.”

    Even if both of those are true(I have my doubts about the second, as others have mentioned) it’s overlooking the huge fact that it’s a family owned business and family can be complicated.

    If the couple has children, that business is a big part of their eventual inheritance(even if the children would sell it), and they’re likely to protest if the parents just give away the business. If the couple doesn’t have children, their next-of-kin who would be their heir likely feels the same way.

    The eventual heirs of course likely won’t say that outright, but none the less it’s most certainly on their minds. If the subject comes up, the children/whoever are likely to say something like “What do you mean you’re GIVING it away. You built that business with nothing but your own two hands, and why are you giving it to some random college student who worked for you for a few years.”

    Of course that script(or words to the effect) would be a GROSS over-simplification, but none the less is likely going to be what the heirs will say, and given that they only think the LW’s cousin is worth $10/h, it likely wouldn’t take much to sway the owners.

    At best, I see the couple offering it for the fair market value, and if they were feeling really generous they might even allow time payment on it. Perhaps they MIGHT offer the LW’s cousin an under-market value(say 2/3 or half, but probably not even that low) and offer time payments, but that still doesn’t really make up for the years of gross underpayment.

  78. Nana*

    Late to the discussion, but…Friend worked for older man for years. When OM retired, he took a small down payment from Friend, but also agreed to a small monthly payment for the few years he had remaining. OM lived to be 95+!

  79. Wren*

    These hints are entirely designed to keep your cousin in a small box, not asking for more. Even if inheriting the business comes to fruition, like many people have said, it may not be worth all that much. Your cousin should absolutely be negotiating to be paid fairly right now.

  80. LogicalOne*

    I’m curious what the name of the business is or what kind of business it is, if it’s possible to share. I would love to support the OP if they decide to go off on their own and start a new business!

  81. Jack V*

    If she’s really carrying a significant part of the business she could be a partner *now*. Or she could get a cut of profits related to all online sales. Or they could negotiate a professional salary. Or they could agree a vesting schedule where if she keeps doing what she’s doing, she’s paid in part ownership (and they can’t treat the business accounts like personal accounts).

    They might well be ok with offering her a partnership but not a raise, if their ideas of salaries crystallized 50 years ago. Or vice versa if they think of the business as “theirs”. If they want to recognize how valuable she is, they could all talk over these possibilities and see what they could all agree to be happy with.

    If they don’t want to do any of those, even the salary, then there’s probably no reliable long term future, and she should think about what she could make starting her own business or looking for another job. She wouldn’t have to DO that, if she has a realistic idea about the salary, she can ask for it! But if they say no, she has a plan.

  82. Jennifer Thneed*

    Letter Writer, you don’t say where your cousin lives, but $10/hour is less than minimum wage in California. She may well be able to make more money working in fast food, depending on where she is. (And she probably wouldn’t have to answer phone calls when she’s not at work.) Please don’t let your cousin fall victim to sunk-cost fallacies.

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