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7 Steps That Will Help You Track Down Missing Freelance Payments

By Debbie Swanson July 15th, 2014

It happens to the best of freelancers: You keep an eye on your receivables, but a check never showed up. You’ve read and re-read the terms of your contract and scanned the junk mail in the recycle bin, but there’s no money to be found. What should you do?

In a profession that relies on making connections and establishing relationships, tracking down missing payments can put a freelancer in an uncomfortable situation. But success hinges upon knowing how to retrieve what’s yours, in a professional manner.

Before you go knocking down doors, confirm the payment is definitely past due. Payment terms can vary. Some publications pay as soon as a piece is accepted for publication, while others wait until after the piece is published.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) advices that you check in seven to 10 business days after your last contact with the publication or scheduled payment date. Waiting beyond that may give the impression you don’t run a tight ship.

When your compensation is late, here are some simple steps to follow:

1. Start with an email to your immediate contact—the editor who gave you the assignment. Remind him or her of the contract, point out the current delay, and attach another copy of the invoice, marked payable upon receipt.

2. If your follow-up doesn’t trigger a response, pick up the phone and call. The distance of email is easier to ignore than hearing a voice on the phone. Remain polite, relay the facts, and ask when to expect your check.

3. If nothing changes, it’s time to move up the ladder. Tactfully ask your contact person for the name of a supervisor or the individual responsible for accounts payable: “I’m sure you’re busy with other responsibilities, can you tell me who is in charge of cutting checks?” However, if your contact is non-responsive, find the right person from the publication’s masthead or website, or contact their general phone number or email.

4. Nothing proving fruitful thus far? Send a letter to the individual in charge—possibly the editor-in-chief or head of accounts payable. Often called a “demand payment letter,” this written request spells out the history of the problem, your attempts to resolve it, and requests payment immediately.

5. Finally, if your compensation remains AWOL, it’s time to turn elsewhere for help. Reach out to organizations that provide support to writers freelancers like ASJA, The National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE), or the Writers Guild of America. Note that membership may be required to receive assistance.

6. Another option is to seek legal assistance on your own. Discuss fees up front, since they can quickly exceed your overall compensation.

7. If your publication has declared bankruptcy, you may be out of luck, according to the ASJA. In that case, explore what the Department of Labor or small claims court can do for you. Specifics vary by state—and you’re usually tied to the state where the client is located—but you may be able to recoup a portion of what’s due.

As you move along in your quest to secure payment, always keep copies of emails, dates, summaries of phone calls, and any invoices or contracts that could support your case.

Tracking down late payments may not be your favorite part of the job, but in many cases, it’s due to an oversight and is quickly resolved. For those few cases where getting paid is problematic, remain calm and professional and work your way up the ladder of command until you secure your money.

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