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Covering your ass(ets): How to protect yourself & your money as a freelancer

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!

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17 responses »

  1. Nice post, Julie. I’ve been (up to this point) extraordinarily lucky with prompt payments and helpful editors/admin folks when things do get off track, but am just now dealing with a publication that has entered bankruptcy protection and stopped paying writers for work we did back in the fall – this despite the fact that the pub continues to print daily and, presumably, to collect ad revenue. It’s frustrating and just makes me feel icky.

    Reply
    • Eva-

      My worry is that the kind of situation you’re facing will become more common as print mags shutter. I don’t think they’re likely to change their pay policies, so those of us pursuing publication in print mags may need to be particularly circumspect about which ones we aim for. That being said, Gourmet seemed pretty safe- even editor Ruth Reichl thought so until the hammer came down and she, like all her staffers, were packing up boxes and looking for new work.

      I don’t want to give in and think “Oh, hard times,” but it’s more important than ever to be smart and stay on top of our finances.

      Reply
  2. Luckily, most of the work I do is for a company where I physically worked before. So I know most of my contacts personally. However, they’ve recently been bought out, and I’m a bit worried that my contacts will get sacked (or leave voluntarily). The fact that the company is overseas is particularly scary.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the tips, Julie. I’ve been paid late a couple times, but never had to deal with such a chase. I live in real fear of it, though, and the sad truth is I think it eventually happens to most freelancers. That’s why tip number 4, I think, is the most important — that really can’t be stressed enough.

    Reply
    • Simone- You’re right. For some reason, so many of us feel reluctant to ask for what we’re due. Perhaps we’re worried that by being “pushy” we’ll jeopardize future prospects of writing for that publication again. But if a publication is so hard to pin down and claim payment from, I’m not sure I want to be published by them.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for the tips Julie, and sorry to hear that you’ve had such a negative experience. I’m new to the freelancing game, so the tips are well taken.

    Reply
  5. For me, one of the hardest parts of freelancing full-time has been figuring out what my financials will be on a month to month basis because not all the companies and publications I work for pay me on a regular schedule, and some take an especially long time. It’s something I’m getting better at as time goes on, but I appreciate learning about new resources like travelwriters.com. Thanks Julie!

    Reply
    • Gabriela-

      I’ve been freelancing full-time for several years now and still have a tough time projecting financials. That makes it hard to start imposing any financial goals on myself, but I took a huge step last year by earmarking $100 for a savings account every week. It pushes me to keep plenty of projects on my plate and to keep the income stream diverse.

      Reply
  6. Thank you so much for this post – as a newish freelancer, I don’t always consider some of those things!

    Reply

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