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socrateaser, Lawyer
Category: California Employment Law
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I am working as a bookkeeper/tax preparer in a very small tax

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I am working as a bookkeeper/tax preparer in a very small tax firm consisting of the owner/boss, his sister, a part time office assistant and myself. I am the assistant to the sister, an Enrolled Agents.

For the 2 1/2 years I have been working there she has constantly criticized my work from the very beginning, throws temper tantrums whenever there is something going wrong from minor mistakes in the bookkeeping to a general failure of a computer program. Her derogatory comments are demeaning and insulting. She uses cuss words on a daily basis and stomps through the office with rolling eyes toward me and loud self-talks like ‘Jesus f….. Christ. She is so stupid, so f……. stupid’ (meaning me whenever I make the slightest mistake). She gets upset when I put the stapler on the counter the wrong way. She throws a fit when I don’t take initiative to either call the clients on my own or follow through with a client’s paperwork. However, when I do take initiative she throws a fit because she thinks I don’t know what I am doing and she rather does it herself before I mess up. She also told me that she doesn’t want me to call the clients because they are getting upset when they find out that I am working on their books and tax returns.
When work is slow she indicates that there is not much to do. So I find things to work on. After several of her mean comments she finally blows up and yells that she is frustrated with me because I don’t get the hints that there is no work; and why I don’t have any integrity to go home instead of letting my boss (her brother) pay me for doing nothing. However, she makes sure she can work her 40 hours per week.
Toward the end of last year finances were bad enough to the point that the boss was not only unable to pay his bills but also unable to meet payroll for six weeks straight (payroll usually occurs weekly). I patiently waited for several promises to come through which finally did. I understand that economic times are difficult.
My Supervisor ‘confronted’ me on the issue of when there is not enough work I should have enough sense to go home. I requested a meeting with her and our boss to discuss this subject and the plan on how I should get paid or alternate options. Even though I requested it several times, the meeting never took place. I also suggested to her that, when there is not enough work I could be temporarily laid off to at least collect unemployment. She declined with the reason that her brother doesn’t want the unemployment rating to go up. Then I suggested I look for bookkeeping work on the side. She declined as well with the reason it would be a conflict of interest. Without any options to help myself by making money on the side how am I supposed to earn a living as a single mom? I am 53 years of age and trying to help two children to get through college.
At another point she confronted me on a remark her brother made to her about me which had been construed and I wanted to clear up that misunderstanding among other issues between her and me with her brother present. I explained the issue to her brother and requested several days in a row a meeting with all three of us. He agreed to the meeting; however put me off day after day after day. Again, the meeting never took place.
Recently I was on the phone with a client for about 15 minutes to clear up some bookkeeping and tax issues. While she was on the other line the third line rang three times and I repeatedly put my client on hold to answer the other calls. Suddenly she charged into my office (she had put her call on hold) with the words ‘you have been on the f….. phone for half an hour. Get off. What are you doing on the phone? Are you expecting my brother to pay you for this? Who are you talking to? (I told her and put the client on hold because he could hear her raging). Are you writing this time down so we can bill the client for this? No you don’t. You never do.”
I said calmly, “Why are you talking to me this way? I always write the time down. Don’t accuse me of something I didn’t do.”
Her answer, “well, you go to my brother for every little thing (which I have not. I kept it to myself). That’s all you do all day. Nothing else.”
This was finally the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. I am frustrated and exhausted. This hostile work environment has led to depression and feeling of being a worthless employee who only ruins the company. Yet, I know this not to be true because I have been a successful bookkeeper for the last 12 years and was always liked in the previous work places.
I had several conversations with her where she apologized but continues her behavior. I also had some conversations with my boss who simply stated he knows how his sister is. When it gets to be too much for him, he leaves for several hours. He has no intention to let me go because he knows I do good work.
Without ruining the company, would I have enough grounds to take this issue to the Labor Board?
Please advise.
Hello,

Personal insults that are not directed at an individual based upon race, color, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, age or disability, are not actionable. Personal animus or hostility, unless accompanied by an actual and imminent threat of physicial violence, no matter how offensive, do not create liability in the employer.

To show you how the employer's actions could convert to a discrimination action, if you were to have a physician diagnose you as clinically depressed, and in need of stress relief, and you were to request reasonable accommodations from your employer to avoid the sort of hostility that you are currently encountering -- and the employer refused to accommodate you -- then you might have a viable disability discrimination action (I'm assuming that there are at least 5 employees in your firm -- if not, then you're sunk before you start). But, you have to find a way to "connect the dots" between a discriminatory motive and the employer's conduct, or you have no claim.

Your facts do suggest that you may have a straightforward wage claim, if you were not paid timely on your payroll -- and the claim is still viable even if you were subsequently paid, because there are penalties for not making payroll on time. But, that won't stop the sort of harassment you are allegedly suffering, and it won't get you substantial damages that would force a behavioral change on your employer.

I'm actually somewhat surprised that you would take the sort of abuse you allege. If you are an EA, then you almost certainly can find other employment -- you have a valuable credential and probably considerable knowledge about the tax laws. So, while I certainly understand the fear of being unemployed, sometimes, the real solution to an employment problem is to tell your employer that if the environment doesn't improve immediately, that he/she will be looking for a new EA, because you're not going to take it anymore.

Naturally, that's a choice you must make -- I'm not advocating that you quit your job and have no income. But, you could certainly contact an HR staffing firm and get your resume out there to see what's available.

If you want to make a discrimination complaint, then see this link to the DEFH. For a wage claim, see this link. And for a competent employment rights attorney referral, see this link.

Hope this helps.

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