Good time to keep careful track of freelance payments

Carolyn Crist

About Carolyn Crist

Carolyn Crist (@cristcarolyn) helps AHCJ’s freelance members find the resources, tips and contacts they need to create and run a successful business. A freelance journalist and author, Crist covers health, medicine and science stories for national news outlets such as Reuters, Runner’s World and Parade. She also writes for trade and custom publications. Contact her at carolyn@healthjournalism.org.

Keep track of freelance payments right nowFor some of AHCJ’s freelancers, payment issues were already a hassle before 2020. Now they may be even more difficult, depending on the publication or editor. In several writer groups online, fellow freelancers have cheered for a surge in work but also bemoaned payment hiccups. Individual situations vary, of course, but a few common threads have appeared.

To start, freelancers should know that nonpayment is unacceptable. If work has been completed, it’s illegal to withhold payment. The Freelancers Union and The Freelancer have written about this and offer options, and the Freelance Isn’t Free Act may be useful for those in New York City.

Next to that, freelance writers may need to be more vigilant than usual about contracts and agreements. If you sign new work with existing editors, double-check the fees to make sure you’re receiving the fee that you expect, especially since a large number of publications have decreased their fees or budgets. If you’re working with a new editor, ask about the payment terms upfront so you have written documentation about the amount and expected turnaround time. Many publications are still paying, but may also have delayed payment schedules, so if that’s the case, it’s best to know that as you begin the assignment. You may accept the terms or choose not to take the work at this time.

Still, freelancers who already have contracts or are already facing payment problems can try a few tricks before pursuing legal options. Here’s what I and other writers have found helpful:

Set up direct deposit.

As editors have moved their operations home to accommodate teleworking, publication staff and administrations have, too. For some freelance writers, this has extended the timeline for check payments, especially if staff are required to go to an office to “cut” a check. Of course, some publications and large media companies use payroll services elsewhere, so that’s not a problem, but it’s worth asking if a direct deposit payment would speed up the process. Plus, many online systems offer a way to track your invoices online so you can see where the payment pauses — either at editor approval, administrator approval, payment issuance or with your bank. In one case, for instance, I was able to see that the media company sent my payment on time, but my bank reflected the payment several days later than it usually does.

Check in with your editors.

If you submit invoices directly to editors after an assignment, the first step is to check on when they passed it along. Depending on publication, some editors submit immediately, but others submit weekly or on another regular schedule. At one magazine, I know my editor sends invoices on Fridays, so I track the typical payment timeline from there. At another magazine, my editor kindly let me know that payments had shifted from a four-week schedule to a five-week schedule. This allowed me to update my invoice tracker and know when to check in again if the payment didn’t arrive.

Refer to your contract.

Don’t forget to sign contracts for all of your work to outline the work expectations and the payment guidelines. In one contract I have, I know that invoices are due at the end of each month, and payments go out by the 15th following that. If there are issues, I email the publication’s accounts payable office and communicate specifics. In one frustrating situation, the publication sent the payment to the wrong address, even though I typed the correct address on my contract, vendor forms and invoice. I was able to refer to all of these, and the office re-sent the check immediately and apologized for the error. These types of documents are vital to move through the process quickly. If you’ve changed addresses within the past year or since you last worked with a publication, double check that your vendor forms are updated and correct so the check isn’t lost in the mail. This has happened to me — even years after moving from the previous address.

Be ready to speak up.

Voice your concerns when you have them. Payment delays can signal a “red flag” for future work, especially if the timelines slowly extend longer and longer. Don’t hesitate to contact your editor and the appropriate additional offices to ask specifics about exactly when the payment will be processed. Reiterate the fact that work is completed and due. Some freelance writers have found success in submitting updated invoices with late fees and “due by” dates. Then create a policy for yourself — if the delay continues or communication is vague, don’t submit another assignment until the payment is made. This tactic has helped me in a few occasions.

Reach out to others.

Fellow freelancers are often a great resource to give a heads-up about particular publications, delays, red flags and scams. Don’t hesitate to ask questions in online groups if something seems amiss. I’ve seen several freelancers tackle questions about common payment delays and join together to contact a publication as a group. You may be able to report non-payment to a local or state authority, as New York City offers through its Department of Consumer Affairs, though not everyone can take advantage of this option. If you ultimately need to take legal action, a group of freelancers could split costs.

As businesses continue to face economic uncertainty, payment delays will likely happen. Be prepared now by keeping your assignment records up-to-date and noting extra details, such as the submission date, invoice date and follow-up dates. Any documentation will be useful for the next step, including a small claims lawsuit, if necessary. My hope is that you won’t have any issues, but if you do, it’s important to be ready.

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