Until recently, the work that paid my bills (because travel writing doesn’t, fully) was editing dissertations and theses. It was steady work, a mostly go-at-my-own-pace gig that paid well. I learned a great deal, reading about topics that interested me but which I’d never have time to investigate myself because of my own interests.
I did this work as a freelancer through a New York City-based company. I’d be offered projects to accept or decline, and I’d generally be paid within a week or two of completion. Then, the economy started tanking. But projects continued coming in and I continued taking them because I needed the money. The market for this kind of work remained curiously robust. I was lucky. I felt recession-proof.
I should have known something was up when I started having to chase down my checks at the midtown Manhattan office of the company I was working for. I knocked on the locked door of the office and a woman told me to go away. I told her I was there for my check and she’d open the door in a huff, telling me, “You can’t just come here anytime you please and ask for your check.” “Well, then, send it to me on time,” I told her on two occasions. “It’s not as if I want to come visit you because you’re a particularly unpleasant human being.”
Then, the office moved. I still chased my checks. And then, the project assigner let slip that the office was closing altogether. All the office workers were telecommuting. Still, the work was steady, I needed the money, and so I kept at it, even when finished projects were no longer paid on any semblance of a schedule.
Back in November, I was regularly wasting hours trying to track down money owed me. I stopped taking on projects sometime in December, figuring that if they were still busy, then my refusal to take on anything new until they paid me would motivate them to cut a check. I’d send emails asking when I could expect the balance due to be paid. “Friday,” the assistant would promise. Friday would come and there would never be any money.
By the time the new year rolled around, I was owed more than $2,000. Over the course of the month, occasional payments would be made, partial payments that pissed me off because each payment was made via PayPal, and each partial payment meant more money deducted for transaction fees.
As of this writing, I’m still owed over $800.
Last week, I decided that I’d given the company more than enough time to fulfill its obligations, and I sent an email saying that if I didn’t hear from them by 3 PM on Friday, I’d report them to the state Department of Labor for non-payment of wages. Though I’ve just filled out and submitted the form this morning at the local DoL office and have no idea how this matter will ultimately be resolved, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about how you can protect yourself as a freelancer. Having to chase down money is a waste of your time and not being paid creates anxiety, and who needs more of that?
Keep in mind that this advice will not apply to every situation. No magazine, for example, will pay you up front for a piece you haven’t yet submitted. But increasing your awareness about your financial rights and the actions you can take will help prevent you from experiencing the kind of situation I now find myself in.
1. Clarify the terms of agreement.
If you’re writing for a magazine, whether online or print, it should have a clearly stated payment policy. If you can’t find one, don’t be shy about asking the editor (a) at what rate you will be paid (flat? per word?); (b) when payment is processed; and (c) how payment is rendered (check? direct bank deposit? PayPal?). If you’re writing for a publication in a different country, you may be subject to that country’s tax withholding terms or you may have money deducted from your payment for transfer fees. Clarify the terms of agreement and keep these in writing.
2. Keep meticulous notes.
If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to chase down money owed you by pursuing legal or governmental mediation, you’ll benefit from having kept meticulous notes. I appended email exchanges, PayPal invoices, and other written documentation to my Department of Labor non-payment form to substantiate the claims I was making. Other information that is often requested when claims are being made against a publication or employer: the name of the payer’s bank, as well as their bank account number. It’s not a bad idea to make a copy of physical checks you receive. If being paid by other methods, be sure to keep an invoice or receipt in your records.
3. Follow up.
There are lots of reasons why a publication may not pay when it says it will; some of these reasons are legitimate and others aren’t. Make a note of when you’re expected to be paid and follow up if payment isn’t rendered. There’s no need for you to be antagonistic, but again–without any written evidence that you’ve attempted to hold the publication responsible for payment, you’re not likely to receive much help. The New York state Department of Labor does not resolve claims if the individual filing the claim hasn’t attempted to resolve the issue independently first.
4. Do not give in to shame.
Every time I sent an e-mail asking for the money I was owed, I felt ashamed. “You shouldn’t have to justify why you need the money,” my husband repeated in the pep talk that accompanied every one of my e-mails. “You did the work. They owe you the money. Period.” If an employer hasn’t paid you the money you’ve earned, there is zero shame in you asking for that money– and asking as many times as it takes to get it. Don’t simply write it off if you’re owed money.
5. Take action if you must.
There aren’t a whole lot of resources out there to help freelancers collect money they’re owed. The Freelancers Union bulletin board has tales of woe from stiffed writers and other creatives and their experiences yield some useful resources. The catch is that support varies by state (and country). Be sure to start with your region’s department of labor as first recourse.
6. Keep your eye on the no-pay blacklist.
If you’re a member of Travelwriters.com (and it’s free, so why not?), you can browse through posts from angry writers on the bulletin board to see what publications are alleged to be no pay, slow pay, or problem pays. Though some writers are definitely on a bender there, it’s worth reading about others’ experiences and advice, and participating in the conversation yourself.
Have you had difficulty getting paid for an assignment? Do you have other tips for shaking the money tree? Sound off in the comments!