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Dispirited but not defeated

I don’t know about you, fellow freelancers, but the past eight weeks have felt like “The Twilight Zone” when it comes to getting paid.

Only you know that the problem won’t end after a 30-minute episode.

At first, I chalked it up to The August Doldrums: you know, editors and publishers going on that elusive thing called “vacation” while you continue to sit, fingers to keyboard, filing assignments and checking accounts to see if those outstanding invoices have been paid.

Once the calendar flipped its page to September, I was ready to follow up. With nearly $9,000 of unpaid invoices, most of which represented work filed months ago, I set aside time in my hectic reporting and writing schedule marked “INVOICE F/U.”

That “F/U” is for “follow-up,” in case you were wondering. I know- the temptation to read a double entendre into that is real.

I always feel resentful about spending time chasing down money I’m owed. It’s time for which I’m not getting paid, spent on work for which I’m owed, taking time away from new work that could be getting done, asking for something I shouldn’t have to ask for because I’ve followed all the rules and have honored my end of contractual agreements. But I suck it up, send out inquiries, pull up and reattach invoices “for your quick reference and convenience,” and look at what kind of crazy mathematics I have to pull off to cover my own obligations while I wait to get paid.

But this September has, thus far, been particularly bad. A publisher who owed $3,200, separated into two invoices, paid one invoice but not the other. When I followed up, they were surprised. There was another invoice? Well, yes. Yes, there was. Another publisher lost my invoices: could I send them again? And a third promised, repeatedly, that “payment was being processed this week,” only this week turned into three weeks, and no, I still haven’t been paid.

The kicker came today, when, after filing an assignment for a reputable outlet for which I’ve written a couple times (and have two more commissions in the pipeline), I wrote accounts payable to check on the status of an invoice filed at the beginning of August. I double-checked our contract: net 30. They were past it. Where was my money? I wrote, politely, to inquire.

What ensued has been an exchange of emails that has left me dispirited and disgusted, but not at all defeated. Many freelancers don’t follow up on payments; others apologize for doing so (“Sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check on my invoice, dated months and months ago!”). After the series of exchanges below, I am, more than ever, determined to be both diligent and dogged in pursuit of compensation for my work.

I hope you will feel the same. I also hope you will share this widely. Don’t let others devalue your work. Don’t continue to contribute to a system that doesn’t compensate you for your product; I can think of no other profession that permits this. Feel free to lift any of the language of my own emails and edit them to fit your own situation as you seek the payment you are owed.
**
Email One: From Me to the Accounts Payable Department of the Publisher

“Hello-

My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing to check on the status of an invoice that was filed on or around August 5. The project was [description of project], which was assigned by [name of editor]. The total due was [$xxx.00]. I have not yet received payment for this project; could you please advise regarding the status and when payment can be expected?

Thanks,
Julie”

**
Email Two: From Someone in Accounts Payable Who Did Not Indicate His Position/Title

“Hi Julie: We are currently have a backlog with our freelance payments, we will get payment out as soon as we can. Please be patient and we’ll get you paid. Thank you!”

Upon receiving this, I stepped away from the computer to think. Would I write a “Ok, thanks!” email or would I let him know that no, this wasn’t okay? I thought about it for about 20 minutes and then responded:

Email Three: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for the update. Do you have an estimate of when the invoice will be paid?”

Email Four: From Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Not at this time. Sorry.”

Email Five: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Dear [name redacted]-

This is an utterly unacceptable response, and one that I find disrespectful and unprofessional. I am not writing for a hobby; this is my profession. Like [name of publisher], I have bills to pay and not a single one of the people or companies waiting for payments from me would accept this type of response.

According to the contract with [name of publisher], it is clearly articulated that your obligation is to pay within 30 days of receiving the invoice. Please see the contract here, if there is any doubt as to that fact.

[I inserted a link to the contract, signed by both parties.]

If I do not receive payment by the close of business on Monday, September 21, I will pursue legal action.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Six: From Untitled Guy #2 in Accounts Payable

“Hi Julie,

My apology for the delay in payment. Please understand that the AP team was in no way trying to be rude or disrespectful and we do appreciate the service you provide to our Company. I’d like to talk to you live if you are available this afternoon so we can discuss your invoice and payment. Please let me know if you are available after 2pm PST and if [my phone number, redacted] is still a valid number to reach you at.

Thanks,
[name of guy #2 from Accounts Payable, who also doesn’t indicate his title]”

Email Seven: From Me to Untitled Guy #2

“Dear [name redacted]-

Thank you for your prompt reply. I’d rather receive explanation and next steps/payment schedule via email so that we have mutual documentation.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me

“Julie,

[Name redacted] forwarded your email to me. I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss, but we will not discuss via email. Sorry if that is an inconvenience for you, but I’ve found email insufficient to discuss payment matters. Please let me know a good day/time/number to call you.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

Email Nine: From Me to CFO

“Dear [Name redacted]-

I’m not sure why you find email ‘insufficient’ for discussing payment matters; as far as I’m concerned, I only want to know when you intend to process payment and whether this problem with paying freelancers will continue, as I have another invoice I’ll be submitting for a work filed yesterday and I have two more assignments pending. If you are insistent that you must call, please be aware that I will record the conversation, which is legal under New York State law.

You are welcome to call me at [number redacted] anytime after 8 AM tomorrow. After tomorrow, I will be out of the country on assignment and without phone and Internet for 10 days, so I ask that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Thank you.”

Email Ten: From CFO to Me

“Julie,

I’m sorry, we will not consent to being recorded. If you’d like to discuss payment without recording, please let me know; otherwise, we’ll tender payment when able.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

Email Eleven: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I’m not asking for your consent. New York law clearly indicates I’m within my rights to record a call, with or without your consent.

It’s clear to me that you and your colleagues don’t intend to act honorably; you’ve made a clear-cut situation far more complicated than necessary, and your contract is absolutely clear about the terms of payment. If I do not near from you by tomorrow, whether by email or phone, with a specific plan of action and timeline for payment, I will initiate legal action.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me

“Julie,

I understand your frustration on payment (I would be frustrated if I were in your position). I would like to discuss it with you. Payment issues happen in business from time to time. When they occur, they are not necessarily (and absolutely not in this case) a function of dishonorable behavior or deceit. We had a significant partner file bankruptcy, which has created this issue. We are working through it. You will be paid in full. If you would like to discuss the timing of this, I am very happy to call you to do so. But, I am in California, which does not allow recording conversations without consent. I do not consent to being recorded. If you want to discuss your payment without recording, I am standing by to do so. If you do not want to do that, you will still be paid in full.”

Email Thirteen: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I certainly understand that ‘payment issues happen in business from time to time.’ I’ve been a business owner and, of course, as a freelancer, I’m frequently in the unfair position of being put at the mercy of a publisher’s ‘payment issues’… though I doubt you or others on staff absorb the similar–and very real– tangible, literal costs of such issues. Nor does your landlord, electric company, or Internet service provider, I’m sure, wait until issues resolve for you to pay them. Yet [name of publisher redacted], like too many publishers, expects freelancers to bear the brunt of the effects of problems they didn’t create. And, unfortunately, too many freelancers don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid they’ll never get paid, or that they’ll ‘burn bridges,’ a ridiculous notion, considering that they’re not the one who caused the problem.

It’s not unreasonable to want to be paid according to the contract we both signed. In addition, what continues to confound is: (1) why you would feel it is at all ethical to allow editors to continue commissioning freelance content in the midst of such problems (which clearly don’t have a resolution), and (2) why you wouldn’t inform freelancers who are due money what the generalities of the problem are, detail how it affects them, and present them with a reasonable resolution, one that has a timeframe attached to it. That’s fair and professional business.

I am not willing to have an off-the-record phone conversation. You can expect to hear from my lawyer.

Sincerely,
Julie Schwietert Collazo”

and his final reply, which will not be met with a response from me, other than the one I’ve clearly indicated is my recourse:

“Understood. Please put him or her in touch with me. Happy to discuss with them.

Best,
[Name redacted]”

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Is Square Cash a Better Payment Method for Freelancers?

Freelance friends and I are in constant conversation about the methods available to us for receiving payments.

PayPal is fast, but a not insignificant service fee is deducted from the total we receive.

Wire transfers are efficient, but most US banks charge transfer fees, even to the recipient. My bank, for example, deducts $15 every time I receive an incoming wire transfer.

Checks are generally fee-free but take longer to be processed and received.

How, we ask each other, can we avoid losing a considerable part of our income to middleman transaction fees?

Maybe Square Cash is one answer.

I read about Square Cash in The Wall Street Journal today and thought that it might actually resolve the service fee problem for freelancers… if enough of us can trust that the service is safe.

Here’s the quick explanation: Square Cash allows one person to send cash directly to another person via email using a debit card. You compose an email, enter the amount in the subject line, and the checking account you’ve linked to your email will provide money to the recipient, who links his or her checking account for a direct transfer.

Pros: You don’t have to set up an account, create a user ID, or try to remember yet another password. The service is fast and easy.

Possible Cons: Security. Is your bank account information too exposed with this service? (Here’s what Square Cash has to say about that.) And are you comfortable with Square’s policy of not protecting you in the event of a hack?

What are your thoughts? Does this look like a service you might be willing to use? Have you tried something else (Google Wallet, for example) that works around middleman fees?

Writing off your losses*

I’m not only a “travel writer,” a term that makes me feel uncomfortable, actually (but that’s a topic for a whole other piece). I write essays–typically about social, cultural, and political issues, as well as pieces related to food and parenting. I am an academic editor, which means that I copy edit dissertations and theses, provide guidance about how students can improve the rigor of their qualitative research, and generally ensure that their finished product meets referencing guidelines. I very occasionally do research for other writers. (Once, I had to go to a courthouse in Brooklyn and scope it out to confirm details that only a local could know for a writer who lived far away). I probably do other stuff I can’t even remember.

And I do translations, Spanish to English and vice versa.

I love translation work. One reason is because Francisco and I do the work together (if you’re ever in need of a translator, I highly recommend a fully bilingual couple to do the work; native speakers often lack the formal grammar and spelling skills that a non-native speaker possesses, but they tend to “get” cultural references that even the most immersed non-native speaker might miss entirely). Other reasons I love translation? I get to practice my formal Spanish skills (as opposed to my sloppy, slangy daily Spanish) and I learn so much about topics that I probably wouldn’t have investigated on my own. I get to work with people from other countries, often on interesting and, occasionally, incredible projects.

Together, Francisco and I have translated the strategic plan for a winery in Rias Baixas, Spain (we learned A LOT about albarino… and felt obliged to drink a few bottles in order to understand our subject. Hiccup). We’ve translated artists’ contracts for a New York based representation firm. We’ve translated all of the text-based material for a wonderful art exhibit about marginalized communities in La Boquilla, Colombia, and all of the dialogue on several documentaries.

Four or five years ago we also took on a quick small project, translating a few articles for a New York based writer. I probably wouldn’t remember the project had it not involved the translation (or non-translation, as we eventually decided) of a single phrase that actually led to an hour-long debate between Francisco and myself about its meaning… and which totally stoked my interest (and ongoing passion) in the theories of translation.

I actually trot out the story of that project every once in a while because I find it an exemplary way to explain some of the challenges of translation. But now, I get to trot the story of that project out for an entirely different reason: we never got paid for it.

*

The Havana Film Festival of New York is showing here this week. Francisco is overdosing on documentaries and movies from Cuba and Latin America while I hang out with Mariel and write between her infrequent naps. After yesterday’s feature, a woman approached Francisco and said, “Are you Julie’s husband? I think I owe you money.”

Funny… the night before, Francisco had brought home a post card advertising a film by a woman with the same name of the person who owed us for the translation project. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks it’s the same Marilyn Perez,” I said to Francisco.

And it was.

Now you’d think that if someone approached you and said “I think I owe you money,” that (1) perhaps they were ashamed they hadn’t paid you for work you did years ago and (2) since they were outing themselves, that they finally intended to pay.

Wrong.

Francisco actually couldn’t remember how much Marilyn owed for the project, and so he told her he’d check with me. I spent about 30 minutes going through years-old email, trying to find the original invoice. “I don’t know,” I finally told him, completely annoyed. “But it was at least $100.” We agreed to say $100 and just settle the account.

*

Francisco saw Marilyn again today and when he told her the balance owed, she actually told him she “could have gotten volunteers” to translate the articles. “But you didn’t,” he told her. “You hired us. You knew the rate beforehand and agreed to it.” “But I ended up losing money on the articles,” Marilyn continued. “That has nothing to do with our work,” Francisco says. “And we definitely lost money.”

*

I’m not entirely sure how their encounter ended- Francisco’s cell phone punked out- but I know for sure he’s not bringing home a hundred dollar bill.

What’s the lesson to be learned here?

I’d actually written off this loss several months after we finished the project, convinced that Marilyn wasn’t going to pay. Perhaps Francisco shouldn’t have even confronted her… even though she was the one to initiate the conversation about her debt.

Should we charge in advance and require that payment be made in full before working on any projects?

We have lots of clients- 99% of them are wonderful. They pay on time, in full, and address any concerns directly and professionally. I don’t want to impose an up-front system on them and I’m not particularly keen on having a different approach for every client; it’s just too much to keep track of.

Should we only accept projects from clients we already know and referrals from those same clients? Perhaps. But it might limit some opportunities.

How do you handle private writing or translation clients and payments? I’d love to hear your advice and experiences in the comments.

*By the way, if you live in the United States or pay taxes in the US, you CAN write off unpaid projects as long as you have evidence of your project agreement and can substantiate you weren’t paid.