Should you call out your client for nonpayment?
If you’ve freelanced long enough, you’ve likely had an issue with clients paying slowly or not at all. The excuses run the gamut.
Your editor might say, “It must’ve gotten lost in the mail,” or “Let me check in with our accounting department.” Sometimes, these excuses are honest. Other times, they’re meant to keep writers temporarily satisfied while they scrounge up the payment—or perhaps put it off until you forget about it and move on to other matters.
But what do you do when you repeatedly get the runaround? Where do you seek help? If you were a staffer and you had an issue with your employer, you might ask for help from a local union or seek out a lawyer to review your contract, if you have the means to do so. But as a freelancer, who do you go to for help? There are groups available to help freelancers. (There’s The Freelancers Union. And I’m organizing the Working Journalists Group in Chicago). However, most freelancers are simply on their own to weed out potentially bad clients.
So you’re getting the runaround from an editor who owes you money. Yes, it’s not fair. Yes, you turned in the work requested and improved it to meet their standards. Yes, you are right. However, you still can’t seem to get the money you were promised.
I started thinking about this after Ebony Magazine was called out on Twitter for not paying writers, ironically many of whom were black, on time or at all.
After an article in The Establishment brought further attention to the issue, Ebony Magazine issued this statement via its Twitter page.
The writer of the article allegedly received Twitter messages from an exec of the venture capital firm which recently acquired Johnson Publishing after the article was published.
So this begs the question, should you call out your clients on social media? Some say you shouldn’t do that, because you may turn off other clients in the future. After all, clients and employers sometimes check your social media channels before hiring you. On the other hand, as journalists, we spend our time calling out wrongdoing by individuals and institutions. We ask whistleblowers to risk their professions to call out corruption—though we do our best to protect them from losing their jobs or getting public backlash.
Before you’re pushed to the point where you feel the need to publicly call out clients for nonpayment, here are some things to consider before you get to Twitter.
Check the client’s track record before you begin the work.
Check sites like Who Pays Writers before working for a publishing company. Not every outlet is listed there, but it has an abundance of information about how long other writers have waited for payment and what the experience was like working with editors there. Talk to other freelancers within your network. They can warn you about local or up-and-coming publications and whether they pay on time. Ask about the editor whether they have a digital payments system rather than using paper checks. Doing this will save you a lot of time and lost wages.
Look at your contract.
First of all, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS HAVE A CONTRACT. If you don’t have something in writing, it makes it that much harder to fight for your money. Most publishing companies have a clause in their contracts explicitly outlining how long the company has to pay you. The industry standard seems to be 30 days. But if it’s not noted in the contract, you should invoice for 15 to 30 days. If they violate terms of your mutual agreement, that’s ground for pursuing legal action. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. But if it does, you’ll have legal standing.
Automate your reminders.
I use Wave to send my invoices to clients. Wave allows you to schedule reminders if your invoice is unpaid for three, seven, or 14 days. I’m not sure if other accounting software or invoicing systems have a similar function, but you should take advantage of that function if it’s available. Have your payment reminders sent out on a regular basis and take note of clients who pay a few days or a week or two late. That way, you’re not spending time following up with clients.
Determine if the money is worth fighting for.
Notice, I didn’t say if you deserve it. Of course, you deserve it! You did the work. I’m asking if it’s worth fighting for. Typically independent journalists don’t get much leeway in amending contracts the way that other sectors do, so read it and make sure you understand and agree to the terms before signing the agreement. Finding legal representation could be costly, but it may be worth it if you’re owed a substantial sum of money.
Find legal representation.
Asking a lawyer to write to your client regarding your payment may be enough to keep you out of court. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to reach out to a lawyer, preferably one who works with creatives, to get an estimate of time and cost in order to retrieve your owed wages. Keep in mind that a legal fight could diminish whatever you were hoping to receive. A lawyer could prepare you for what that fight may entail. This is extremely tough because many freelancers don’t have the means or the time to go to court. It’s a crappy situation, but again, that’s determined by how much you’re owed and the other particulars of your situation.
It seems like speaking out on Twitter has worked for writers who want to be paid. Some of the Ebony writers who were at one point unpaid went on to receive their paychecks. For folks who don’t want to risk relationships with other potential clients or are otherwise too afraid to speak up for themselves, hopefully, these tips will help you find someone who can find the right solution for those situations.
Have you had a client not pay on time? How did you handle it? Leave a comment or email me tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.