Abusive employment relationships

Erica Deutsch.

Por Erica Deutsch

Abusive relationships often evidence a phenomenon referred to as “battered person syndrome.”  Most commonly seen in women who are victims of domestic violence, they often develop a learned helplessness including the belief that the abuse is her own fault, with an inability to place blame on the abuser.  It is this distorted perception that often leads individuals to stay in the abusive relationships for years, sometimes even decades, or a lifetime.

In abusive employment relationships a similar trend of self-blame or excuse also occurs.  Workers often put up with abusive and exploitative work conditions under the warped belief that they are “lucky to have a job”.  For many, current economic conditions reinforce this belief, and the very real fear of termination as retaliation for speaking up against workplace injustices overrides any instinct to do so.  Other workers simply don’t recognize workplace exploitation and honestly view their decision to work under abusive conditions as a choice they are not only accepting – but that they are proud of.  A farm worker I recently interviewed told me “I am a hard worker, and want to prove myself to the boss, that’s why I come in half an hour early to get ready for work…no one is making me come in and I don’t care that I am not paid for that time.”  In reality, however, this worker was required to be ready to begin work at a certain hour and that half hour of work was necessary to gather and prepare his tools.  If not ready by the official start time, he would be sent home for the day, unpaid, with no ability to recoup the lost earnings.  Under those circumstances, is it really his “choice” to come in early?  Doesn’t his employer benefit from the half hour of prep work?  Why shouldn’t this worker demand to get paid?  Indeed, that is what is the law requires, but why doesn’t he see the truth that he is being robbed a half an hour of pay every day?  Over the course of a year that can easily amount to 120.75 hours of stolen wages, assuming an 11.5 month work year.  At minimum wage, that’s $966.00 a year that this employee is not being paid.  If you consider that this extra half hour may make the difference between the right to overtime pay or not, that figure can increase to $1449.00 a year – almost 10% of the employee’s yearly salary!  Yet, he displays the same trait of rationalization that a battered woman might use to justify staying in an abusive situation.  Somehow, in either case, it is their own fault and the abuser is not to blame.  Inevitably this leads to the conclusion that the abuser should not be held accountable for their bad behavior.

The amount of benefit an employer receives from a seemingly minor violation such as the one described above is tremendous.  If an employer treats 100 workers this way, the employer makes somewhere between $96,600.00-$144,900.00 a year.  That is equivalent to the combined yearly salaries of anywhere between 6-9 employees at that same pay rate.  And you can bet that an employer like this likely has other systems and policies in place that rob employees of wages.  In the case of the worker I interviewed, I learned that he regularly worked through his break periods.  According to him it was his choice to do this, he was not required to work by his supervisor.  However, he was doing this to make sure he did not fall behind on his productivity quotas.  Falling behind could cost him his job.  When all his co-workers are doing the same, this flags that the employer has unrealistic requirements.  The employees have no choice in that situation but to work through designated breaks.  The employer turns a blind eye to its own unrealistic demands, and does not overtly make employees work during breaks.  But, just because the employer is not directly telling the employees to work through their break does not mean that they are acting voluntarily.

Abuse in the workplace is seen in so many different ways.  Some common scenarios include wage theft as described above, sexual harassment, unsafe or unsanitary work conditions, failure to pay for or provide rest and meal breaks, failure to properly pay for overtime, failure to pay the minimum wage, and unrealistic production expectations – with harsh consequences for not meeting goals, among other abuses.  These practices are illegal and there are legal remedies and protections available for those who are subject to these untenable conditions, and for those who have the courage to challenge these practices.

For undocumented workers, workplace abuses abound and are compounded by the physically tolling nature of most jobs available to this class of workers.  Because of their status, undocumented workers have the heightened level of fear of retaliation, and often do not realize the extent of their workplace rights.  Feeling as they are shielded by this fear, unscrupulous employers take advantage of these employees and subject the workers to the worst of the worst conditions – with an “I-dare-you-to-tell” attitude.  Even in cases of blatant abuse, however, undocumented workers often display the same symptoms of rationalization and justification for the abuse.  Rather than “cause problems” and face the possibility of losing their job or worse, the workers are extremely loyal to their employers  – employers who in the face of a government audit will immediately feign ignorance of the undocumented status and terminate its workers with no notice, no severance, no reference.

Of course, there are many and obvious differences between the dynamics driving a personal and intimate relationship where physical abuse occurs, and that between a worker and employer.  There is no comparison to the deep physical wounds and psychological trauma that may result from a physically abusive relationship.  But the resignation, denial, and rationalization seen by individuals in either situation displays the common psychological reaction of individuals subjected to abuse.  In many instances further resulting symptoms include depression, helplessness, and anxiety.

Individuals must be aware not only their workplace rights such as minimum wage requirements, safe work conditions, and regular breaks, but also of the extensive protections available to those who demand employers comply with these laws.  There are laws to protect those who stand up to the exploitation they face in the workplace, to ensure that they don‘t lose their jobs.  It takes tremendous courage to initiate action against the employer you rely on to provide for you and your family — the economic dependence is a compelling force that is difficult to surmount.  Although there are protections, nothing can protect against the hostility an individual will surely face after asserting their rights.  But the only way to stop this cycle is to make it unacceptable.  No employer should get away with violating workplace laws.

When I was given the opportunity to contribute to LatinoCalifornia regarding workplace issues, I was excited to participate.  I plan to periodically contribute pieces that outline different laws concerning workplace issues to inform individuals of their rights in the workplace – and to also recount actual cases and stories of workplace victories.  It is my hope that my contributions will help teach workers about their rights, and provide some hope and courage to seek assistance to make a claim for what is rightfully and lawfully theirs.  I urge you to join me in this mission and share what you learn with friends, family and co-workers.  By encouraging and supporting individuals subject to workplace violations to seek redress, together we can work towards ending the cycle of abuse by seeking fairness and equity for all in the workplace.

Erica Deutsch

Bush Gottlieb Singer López Kohanski Adelstein & Dickinson

500 North Central Avenue, Suite 800

Glendale, CA  91203

(818) 973-3257




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