About 40% of freelancers had trouble getting paid in 2009, according to a survey released in mid-April by the New York-based Freelancers Union, a 135,000-member organization for independent contractors across the country in fields such as media, technology, and advertising. It was the first year the group asked the question on its member survey. And more than three out of four freelancers said they’ve had trouble getting paid over the course of their careers, according to organization.
Since independent contractors aren’t covered by most federal employment laws, they don’t enjoy the same legal protections on wages as permanent employees, says a spokesman for the Department of Labor. If a permanent employee doesn’t get paid, federal or state labor departments can fine companies and even prosecute company executives. But independent contractors often have to turn to the court system, in most cases small claims, if they go unpaid.
To some, small-claims court can be more trouble than it’s worth, says Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. Depending on the state, it will cost about $50 to file a claim and it can take months for a case to be heard. Even if a freelancer wins, small-claims judgments must be collected by the plaintiff.
How can a freelancer avoid problems? Before accepting a job, freelancers can search consumer complaint Web sites like RipoffReport.com and industry discussion boards to make sure the company they’re contracting with doesn’t have a history of late payments, says Kate Lister, a former small-business consultant, and co-author of “Undress for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home.”
Make sure to have the terms of payment and penalties for being late built into a written contract. Should a firm run into financial trouble, company officials typically give priority to the contractors who have spelled out fee-based consequences for a late payment, says Michelle Goodman, author of “My So-Called Freelance Life.”
After a payment deadline has passed, immediately try to connect with the person responsible for payment by phone. If they don’t respond, send a revised invoice with the agreed-upon fees or interest charges added on.
Where contractors go wrong is when they don’t act fast at the first sign of a late payment. Freelancers “don’t want to look like a jerk, but that’s silly. This isn’t getting a prom date. It’s business,” Ms. Goodman says.
Filing a complaint in small-claims court should be a last resort. As a last step before heading to small-claims court, send a simple letter with the amount, how long it’s overdue and your intention to take it to court, Ms. Lister says, and copy your lawyer, a company board member and any relevant regulatory agencies. A complaint about a broadcast company, for example, could be copied to the Federal Communications Commission, which considers how a broadcaster treats its local community when granting certain permits, Ms. Lister says.
If you get a judgment in your favor and the company doesn’t send a check, you’ll probably have to pay other fees to file liens, garnish the company’s earnings, or hire a police officer to seize cash from the business, depending on the state. Keep in mind, if a company hasn’t paid because it’s under bankruptcy-court protection or doesn’t have the money, you likely won’t be able to collect.
Excerpted from a blog by Joe Light
Wall Street Journal Digital Network/Running a Business