A reader writes:
In October, I started a job working as a freelance journalist for a local newspaper. The managing editor would communicate with me via email, sending me leads for stories. I would go to events, interview people, and take pictures. She was very nice and always responded to my emails within minutes. According to the contract, written by the newspaper, I am to receive $50 for each full length feature article, less money for shorter articles.
The month of November, I was busy with writing, and then a bunch of red flags were raised up that I knew indicated things had taken a wrong turn. The last assignment she had sent me on was to cover an event on Thanksgiving Day (grumble, grumble). She has given me no assignments the entire month of December. I asked her if she had any work, and it took her a few hours to respond, finally she said “Things are pretty quiet right now.” Hmm, okay. I noticed she hired another reporter, who has basically taken over the coverage area that I was writing. So, she replaced me.
I sent in my invoice for all of the articles I had written for the month of November. I sent it in at the beginning of the month, as stated in the contract. It’s now the 16th and I have not received payment. I sent her a nice email asking when I could expect payment of my invoice. She did not respond. (And she normally responds to my emails within minutes….) Okay, great, so now she’s ignoring me. I re-read my contract and it says that “(Newspaper) shall pay the undisputed amount of each submitted invoice within sixty (60) calendar days of receipt of the invoice, starting in bi-weekly increments upon timely receipt of the billing submitted.” I think that is just crazy. I freelance for plenty of small businesses who are able to get me a check the very next day. So what should I do? Do I just wait 60 days (until February) to see if she actually pays? Should I continue to contact her? If so, how often? Should I send another invoice? Should I contact the Department of Labor?
When I started reading your letter, I was ready to be outraged about a client not paying you, but … she hasn’t violated the terms of your agreement yet!
You signed a contract stating that they have 60 days to pay you. It sounds like you submitted your invoice about two weeks ago. They’re only a quarter of the way through the time you agreed to let them take. If you think 60 days is crazy, the time to raise that was before signing a contract agreeing to that. By signing, you indicated your acceptance of those terms. (That said, while 30-60 days is pretty typical in my experience, I’m not sure what that biweekly increments part is about. Are they supposed to start paying you $125 every two weeks for a $500 invoice, and if so, why? I’d want clarity on that part, but for now I’m going to ignore it since it’s odd.)
I can see why you’re somewhat alarmed that she didn’t respond to your email inquiring about payment if she’s normally very responsive to email. However, (a) many people are out of town at this time of year and she could be one of them, (b) since answering may have required her to first check with her accounting department, she might have put the message aside to respond to later, or (c) responding might be low on her priority list since she figures that the answer is in your contract and they’re nowhere near the payment deadline.
I would not continue to follow up on this right now, since pressing for payment well before it’s due isn’t something that will reflect well on you (and definitely don’t send another invoice before then!). I’d just mark your calendar for 61 days from when you submitted the invoice (the day after the due date), and follow up if you haven’t received payment by then.
If you haven’t received it by then, send her an email checking on it. If you don’t receive a response to that within a few days, then call her.
If you still don’t receive payment, then send another invoice, this time with late fees added. Ultimately, if you’re not getting paid in accordance with the terms of your contact, you’d need to go to small claims court to collect (the Department of Labor only enforces pay arrangements in employer-employee situations, not independent contractors) … but you’re a long way away from needing to think about that.
To avoid this in the future, take a look at payment terms before signing a contract. You can also build in late fees, which is a pretty effective way to get most people to pay on time. (But again, 30-60 days is pretty common.)
I also would try to get out of the habit of reading anything into it if someone doesn’t respond to emails within minutes, even if that’s their normal habit. People go to meetings, work on projects that require concentration, take time off work, or simply take a break from email. Do not freak out over not getting immediate responses, even if someone has trained you to expect them!