My Yearlong Quest to Get Paid

By Darlena Cunha March 2nd, 2016

I got paid for my work last week.

In the world of freelancing, that isn’t always guaranteed. For me, it took nearly a year to collect an $800 debt. When clients don’t pay up, freelancers have to choose between spending time and money fighting for a fee or cutting their losses. And whether they end up getting paid for their work or not, the result is late bills, broken promises, and health care delayed.

In my case, I thought I’d done everything right.

It started with an investigative piece on international surrogacy that I wrote in late 2014. One of the sources I interviewed for the story was a couple who owned a surrogacy business. They asked if I wanted to write for a new magazine they were starting to promote their business. They were offering $100 for 800 words. I countered with $200, and they reluctantly accepted.

Before I went further, I vetted the company. I examined the website. I searched for recent news. I looked at mentions on social media. And I asked a friend of mine who had dealt with this company to give me some feedback. She said it might be the most ethical company she’d worked with in the business. That was enough to get this partnership off the ground.

Soon afterward, in March 2015, I sent in my typical freelancer agreement and a 1099 form. The publication wanted two articles per month from me at $200 a piece. The contract stated that I would complete the work and send in a monthly invoice, to be paid via check, no later than 90 days past billing.

Once the paperwork was taken care of, I sent in my copy, waited for publication, secured the links, and submitted my invoice. With the next deadlines looming, I wrote two more stories and sent in the invoice even though I hadn’t received my first payment. Business as usual.

In June, the client asked me to do a piece that would have required a lot of research and some international calling. I accepted, explained the angle I would take, and waited for confirmation. It never came.

In the next two weeks, I sent three follow-up emails. Normally, I’d have started on the fifth story, but something seemed off. The company had been fairly quick to reply to all other communication, but suddenly it had disappeared. The communication stopped on the exact date I inquired about my invoice.

The first reminder was a casual follow-up, sent June 11, asking if the check was on the way. I still wasn’t sure if I was being commissioned for that last piece, so I sent inquiries on June 16, June 26, June 30, and July 9. My 90 days had passed with no word, so I didn’t finish the fifth story.

Unfortunately, this situation isn’t an anomaly. Forty-four percent of Freelancers Union members reported issues getting paid in 2014, according to Freelancers Union founder and labor lawyer Sara Horowitz. “On average, our members are owed over $10,000 in unpaid invoices and spend 36 hours tracking down each missing payment,” she said.

I didn’t want to add to that statistic, so I started calling. The first few times, I got patched through, but the owner was never there. By my third phone call, the administrative assistants started “taking messages” for him.

On August 11, I wrote the email that finally evoked a response.

I just called your office for the second time, and I still have not heard from you at all. I want to give you every benefit of the doubt, so please respond, either by phone or email, or I will be forced to take the next step, which will be a letter from my attorney. It has been well over ninety days since my pieces went live, and it is distressing that not only have I not received payment but also that you have disappeared entirely when I try to engage you in an honest conversation about this.

Independent contractors aren’t covered by federal employment laws, meaning if we don’t get paid, our only recourse is small claims court. This can be costly and time-consuming, and some clients bank on freelancers just going away. Some of us don’t. I started preparing to go all the way over a mere $800.

I didn’t have to. Once I threatened legal action, I heard back within hours.

The owner claimed he had been very ill, which is why he hadn’t been communicating. I immediately felt guilty, though never once did he or the assistants tell me he was ill. He’d just disappeared.

He soon sent me a check—but only for $400, not the $800 owed. He claimed he could only find one invoice and that he would pay the rest as soon as I resent. I resent.

The process started anew. On August 13, I confirmed I’d received the first payment and asked if he’d received my second invoice. Silence. On September 9, I followed up. Then twice more on September 24 and October 10, when I told him I would have to start calling his office again if he did not respond.

I started calling. Two weeks later, he wrote a placating email stating he was back at work and would send the check out that week. He did not. More follow-ups: October 30, November 4, November 12, December 9. I was dogged at this point, yet they were silent.

I again pulled the lawyer card, but this time it made no difference. Was my $400 really worth all this? To me it was now a matter of principle. I’d gone too far to let it drop.

I called my friend, a copyright and patent lawyer, sent him the contract and the invoices, and he drew me up a letter, which I sent both via email, at first, and then certified mail on January 29, 2016. When he received the letter from my attorney, he paid up right away. It took me five days to research and write those pieces, two months to wait for their publication, and nearly a year to get my check.

And last week, I finally got paid.

Image by Creative Commons
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