update: freelance agency keeps paying me late, but they give me a lot of work

Remember the freelancer whose client kept paying late, but gave them a lot of work (#5 at the link)? Here’s the update.

I was the freelancer wondering if I should cut ties with a chronically late paying agency. In the end .. I did! It took over 3 months for payment to be made, after escalating and emailing heads of non-finance departments, and they never paid the accrued late fees. But it was nominal so I was happy to write that off in the end to be rid of this situation.

Some commenters speculated on the timesheet and invoicing structure. I’m not USA-based – here, agencies tend to book freelancers by industry standard day rates, for days/weeks, sometimes months or rolling contracts. During that time, we work on various jobs and track hours that we input against job numbers (JNs) on the timesheets. This agency had electronic systems that needed manual JN entry. Freelancers lost their access when their contract ended. It was common that projects started before finance could approve PO, so that normally would happen during the week but was dependent on project managers being organised. Not all were, and invoicing and payment was dependent on completed timesheets. You can see where the issues could arise.

A 30-day payment was in the contract, which the agency broke. I had set late fees after 30 days (as per government guidelines in my country) and these were ignored too.

In the end, after I finally received the payment, I sent my contacts an email thanking them for the work they’ve given me over the years but stated I couldn’t carry on working with them due to the late payment issues, lack of communication and this not being the first time this had happened. They were very apologetic. Forgive me for tooting my own horn but I’m a good freelancer who’s had great feedback and working relationships with agencies I’ve worked with, so as an agency they lost this resource. It is strange why companies value money over keeping relationships with valuable contractors that help them do great work. Freelancers also talk. We know which agencies are good and which are problematic. Paying late and pushing company issues on to 3rd parties like freelancers, will only shoot themselves in the foot in the long run. So in the end, I severed ties and have picked up other work with other agencies. Freelancers, don’t be afraid to show terrible companies the door! They will learn when good freelancers refuse to work with them (you’d hope anyway).

And thank you everyone for the interesting perspectives in the comments!

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    Good for you for cutting them off, OP.

    Why do companies do this? In part it’s because the people who benefit from your work are not the ones who are in charge of getting you your payment. Not being able to work with you or another good freelancer again doesn’t make accounts payable’s life harder, only the hiring manager’s. So if paying people promptly isn’t built into the way the finance department works, the best you can hope for is that the hiring manager will be a pest and get on the case of whoever is delaying payments to the point that that person will expedite things just to get the hiring manager off their back.

    Or you could just wash your hands of that client, as you did. Well done!

    1. Sloanicota*

      Ugh, having been on the other side of this (I was the person fighting with my admin account to get our freelancers paid) it happens when the finance/admin/compliance department becomes very powerful. Our accounting departments wouldn’t release money unless all the boxes were fully checked, including stuff that wasn’t relevant. Sometimes the delay was on their end because of the review process to ensure this / dumb questions they insisted on having answered before they would proceed. They were terrified to fail an audit and find they had released government funds inappropriately. Added to which, they had annoying “cut off dates” for checks, which were only cut twice a month anyway. They wouldn’t have cared if we lost the best workers as they had nothing to do with that side of the organization.

      1. Lulu*

        Yes! Fear of audit is not a sufficient reason for all the unnecessary stupid paperwork they create. I would even argue it’s counterintuitive because the more crap there is to fill out, especially when half of it is obviously bs so you no longer care, the more likely people are to make mistakes.

        1. Artemesia*

          I once had a reimbursement check held up because my receipt for a McDonald’s Lunch was not itemized and they couldn’t demonstrate that that 12 dollar meal didn’t include alcohol. So there went a month. On another occasion they kicked back paperwork because they limited reimbursement for dinner to $25 and dinner had cost $55 (although only 25 was claimed, the receipt was for 55 — like sure we are going to San Francisco or Chicago or New Orleans and not eat well).

          I think these jobs tend to attract a fair number of people who enjoy sticking it to others.

        2. Rolly*

          ” more crap there is to fill out, especially when half of it is obviously bs so you no longer care, the more likely people are to make mistakes”


      2. Kat*

        As an accountant, that is literally our job to make sure all the boxes are checked. Without integrity, you can’t trust our numbers. This is also why the accountant world is seeing a flood of women because you basically play mom all day long with an occasional financial review thrown in there.

        1. TNR Cat Lady*

          Came here to say the same. Take the few minutes when filling the forms out rather than hold up the entire process and possibly several other peoples time by having to follow up. There are reasons that the items/questions are on the form.

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            Though a certain lawyer I remember who tried to take per diem *and* claim expensive dinners with receipts finally settled down and realized it wasn’t going to happen.

            Or the truck drivers who filled their own cars with company gas cards. (I was really bored that day, flipped through the list, and lo, there were a few ‘unleaded’s’ amongst the many diesel line items).

            We’re suspicious for a reason. But we tried to push back when the company decided to screw over perfectly good vendors by changing the pay date from 30 days to 60.

    2. sofar*

      This this this this. I hire the freelancers, approve their work and shepherd their invoices to accounting. And have NO power over when they get paid or not. Literally just 10 minutes ago got another follow-up from a freelancer who’s not been paid in 3 months. And literally all I can do is follow up with our understaffed accounting department (one of their managers literally recently died of COVID, it’s BAD over there) and be ignored.

      I do what I can, but, at the end of the day, my large company decided it was going to rely on like 200 freelancers for a bulk of our work and didn’t hire more accounts payable folks to deal with the absolute onslaught of invoices. If a freelancer dumps us, it sucks for me, but does NOT suck for those who have the ability to pay freelancers. And my job is to “just find another freelancer.”

      1. OP*

        That’s the crux of it I think, there’s always a million other freelancers out there to step in.

    3. pancakes*

      Why aren’t the people benefitting from the work getting all up in finance’s business until they have what they need, though? Or encouraging their freelancers to?

      I’m luck to not have to deal with this frequently, but the one time a magazine swiped a photo of mine and tried to get out of paying for it, the editor who was trying to give me the runaround did eventually connect me with accounts payable. I realize it can be a little trickier for people who are hoping to have a longer working relationship vs. get paid for a one-off, or who are owed a lot of money, but there are plenty of ways to more or less politely escalate without being a pest.

      1. MM*

        When I was in this position (trying to get finance to pay contractors whose work I benefited from), I was also a contractor who was also not getting paid promptly. The finance dept was one guy. Rightly or wrongly, I felt there was only so much annoying him I could do.

    4. Autumnheart*

      They do it because wage theft is extremely profitable. They get the work immediately, they get to earn money while they delay or often forego payment entirely, you get nothing and hope for better luck with the next company.

    5. Ozzac*

      I run a store, and about half of my customers are businness and offices. There are 3 of them that are consistently late with payments, and need a lot of calls and emails to pay me.
      I also feel sorry for the people that they send to buy from me because there have been times when I had to refuse the sale since they were too much in debt.

  2. addiez*

    I work at a massive company so my experience is a little different – but let me just say that getting invoices paid is one of the most frustrating parts of my job! It’s not that we value money over the relationships, it’s that the structures in place make it incredibly hard to pay things on any realistic timeline. It’s a problem for sure but not one that I personally have the ability to impact, unfortunately.

    1. NYWeasel*

      Yup, this. I cringe every time we start working with a new external person bc of the headaches I know are heading my way!

      Glad the OP was able to stand up for herself though!

    2. Forrest*

      Yeah, I have worked inside a large organisation where part of my job was being the liaison person for freelancers and dealing with invoices. It was not a major part of my job, so I never got trained on it, and I didn’t have a whole overview of the process, the things that could go wrong, or the differences between the two or three different types of timesheets and invoices that I dealt with, so every single time it went wrong I had to go off on a magical mystery tour of people in Payroll, Accounts Payable, Petty Cash etc and then I’d get tons and tons of, “Oh, yes, right, you need Deborah, but she’s finished for the week, she’ll be back in next Tuesday?” “Hi, yes, I’m Deborah, absolutely I can do that for you, oh but the only thing is that Friday was this month’s deadline so this will go out in the July batch now, is that OK?”

      Fifteen years later, I am SO much better in that kind of situation at being much more persistent and knowing what kind of questions to ask and how to figure out who is the person who will give me a proper big picture understanding and how to be the person who goes, “No, this person has been waiting for six weeks now, who do I need to speak to to get an exception?” But these days I hardly ever deal with those kind of invoices!

      It’s also been my experience that what are VERY SIGNIFICANT amounts of money for us ordinary people are extremely titchy amounts to people who are dealing with tens of thousands on a daily basis, and you have to figure out the magic words to get them to care about £850 because that’s someone else’s ability to pay their rent. Quite often Payroll get that, because they’re so used to dealing with people’s salaries and they know that one mistake is the difference between someone being able to pay their bills and not being able to. But if you’re a freelancer, you might well be in Accounts Payable where 90% of what they do is work with other large organisations who are not particularly discommoded by whether that £50k comes in June or July as long as it’s this financial quarter, and they don’t have the same mindset about a “small” bill for under £10k!

      1. Artemesia*

        I had to go to the mattresses once to get a grad student paid who literally needed it to have a roof over her head and food on the table — someone screwed up getting the paperwork in (not the student) and they wanted to push it off a month.

    3. OP*

      Oh I bet it is and I totally feel for people having to chase this internally. I was more criticising the structure/setup of these companies, not necessarily the individuals involved. Sometimes the communication (or lack thereof) from finance makes it worse too. Someone saying ‘we need to just get X signed off, we’ll expect that by Monday” with followthrough is better than no response at all. But one can dream .. :)

  3. Free Meerkats*

    Is there a method like Glassdoor for the freelancers in your area to pass on information like this? Let as many other freelancers know about the ongoing problems you’ve had with them; that way, other freelancers can make the decision ahead of time if they want to deal with delayed payment problems.

    1. Anniepurna*

      Yeah. Gossip. :) Freelancers in the same industry TALK. Online, at conferences, when collaborating, etc. Word always gets out about the bad clients. Always.

    2. RJ*

      Glassdoor works for freelancers if you can get an employee leave details in my experience. I worked at a specialized design firm that was notorious for late payments to freelancers. Word got around very fast after they burned one particular freelancer and went on to ‘restructure’ the PM. The review is still up and it ‘s been a constant thorn in their side as they continue to this day to do the very same thing to all of their freelancers. It got so bad at one point with certain content creators that they were demanding (and receiving) a retainer before they’d start work.

  4. Hog Wild*

    As a freelancer myself I feel your pain. In my experience, the bigger the company, the bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to get paid. One tech giant (yes you know who they are) actually has a clause in their contractor contract that if you want to get paid in a timely fashion, you need to accept a 10% pay cut. And if you want to work with them, you have to agree to it.

    1. Rosemary*

      My small company works with a company that does that, and we just build into our costs. So if we normally would charge $50K for a project… we charge $55K

      1. nonprofit writer*

        I mean… wouldn’t everyone do this? I don’t even understand the point of their policy.

        1. ScruffyInternHerder*

          Guessing it shows that they’re negotiating something something something.

          I frequently see invoices with a 10 day’s cash discount on them. (Pay it in ten, you get the “cash discount”, i.e. no credit charges) If they go to a project where I know that the customer isn’t going to pay in a timely manner, we build the non-discounted price into it.

        2. Hog Wild*

          Yes. Except for the first time they slam you with their longform contract after you’d already negotiated pay and scope of work.

    2. nonprofit writer*

      Ugh, bureaucracy. It’s not just large corporations–large international development organizations are guilty of this. Particularly the biggest & most well known international organization of all, which I somehow keep doing freelance work for despite my occasional vows to myself that I will stop. With my current contract, I don’t really have issues getting paid but it was a huge slog to get a contract at all. And this, mind you, was after I’d already been doing the work. Their whole system is set up to be so difficult that everyone spends a huge amount of time figuring out workarounds–back-dating invoices, etc. For the one office I’ve been working with on and off for 5 years, I’ve had multiple contracts and each time it’s a new process to get one. One time they were supposed to review 80 other resumes in addition to mine to prove that I was the best person for the job (I’d been doing it for a couple years–also it’s a part time consultant position, project based, not in any way a staff job or even full time consultancy). Last time they wanted a copy of my passport and proof of my college degree in order to do the contract. For writing/editing work that involves literally zero travel and that I’d already been doing for years at that point (which makes the need for a degree somewhat irrelevant–either I can do the job or I can’t and I’ve already shown I can do it).

      In earlier stints working for them, it took months to get paid. And again, this is the biggest international org in the world and they have plenty of money.

    3. pancakes*

      I think the reason big companies are even worse at this is because they’re more likely to be leveraging their cash flow. Payment terms in ye olde days would be net 30 or net 60 or whatnot when people were writing and mailing checks. That’s not how we have to move money around anymore. It is a nice chunk of time to keep cash on hand, though!

      1. OP*

        I suspect they wait til they get paid by client at least. It sucks, and why should freelancers bear the brunt of that?

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Yes it sucks and it’s even illegal. As a freelancer, my business relationship is with Outsourcers Unlimited, not with their client. If their client defaults does that mean I don’t get paid?

          The agency I used to work at actually put in their terms of payment that it wouldn’t happen until our client had paid. One freelancer pointed out that it was illegal and refused to work with us. I think those who did work with us can’t have read the terms!

      2. Bluesboy*

        Yes, it surprises me that nobody else has seemed to mention this. If I (as a company) have a project for which I will be paid on completion, or in 60 days, or in 90 days, I don’t physically have that money with which to pay my freelancers. Fine, if I’m well organised, I keep money on hand to cover my costs until I get paid, but not everyone IS well organised. With small companies, I think sometimes they just don’t have the funds immediately on hand.

        With larger companies it’s more cynical. I don’t want too much money sitting around, I want to invest it in something that will bring me a return. So I spend it. I could borrow money to pay my bills, but that has a cost – making people wait is free.

        This is why I think late fees are essential – the late fee has to make sure that it will cost them less to pay you now than to make you wait. That way you eliminate one reason to pay you late. If they still pay you late then they’re badly organised, but at least you know you won’t get paid late because they are waiting to pay you to save money.

        1. OP*

          Or they ignore the late fees and pay when they feel like it (that’s been my experience, as frustrating as it is). Also it’s not the freelancer’s duty to burden of how a company conducts their cashflow.. if they need the work they should have funds set in place for it to pay for the goods provided within the payment period. I can’t go to a dentist or mechanic or any other provider and say “sorry I’ll pay you when my invoice is paid”. It’s so strange that mentality exists, like freelancing is a hobby or something.

  5. Jack Russell Terrier*

    A while back, my team moved to a multinational company. I was a contractor (in the US). There were hardly any people like me and they kept changing the approval procedures so my timesheet would often end up sitting in someone’s pile to be sent back to my supervisor because they were using the old approval bureaucracy.

    Did I mention I traveled a lot for the job so I would be *thousands of dollars out of pocket* as well as not getting paid!

    It took me months to find out why I wasn’t getting paid on time when the timesheet was approved. Then it took another chunk of time to get the attention of the big boss – with whom I had a very good but distant relationship. Finally, he was in DC and he agreed to have coffee and not just ‘do it over the phone’. I knew I needed to have his full attention. When he realized what was happening he was truly apologetic – he’s a good guy. He said – always copy me on your timesheet and I’ll approve it immediately. He was a Director, so all went smoothly there until the company went bankrupt … .

    He then took us all to another company that is much better. First of all, I’m not a contractor but an as-needed employee. They are also great about timesheets and if you put in expenses by Wednsday, you get paid the following Monday.

  6. Late To The Party*

    My predecessor had hired someone to play Santa at our company holiday party. She told him that she would submit to corporate for payment. She started a new job at a new company on January 1st. Santa showed up at my office door at the end of January stating “you are now on Santa’s naughty list.” I don’t know why corporate didn’t pay him promptly but he did receive payment shortly thereafter. I told all of my third party vendors that I could pay them via American Express if they wanted payment on the day of service from there on out. That worked much better.

  7. loremipsum*

    Worked in journalism for many years which like many industries increasingly depends on freelancers. There are some sites out there where you can review and post your experience, pay and content format, as well as add notes such as how timely the payment is: https://contently.net/rates-database/rates/

  8. Joanna*

    This is a good update. I’m happy you were able to leave them behind.

    I work at a very large corporation, and have to approve some freelancer invoices. I always take it seriously, and approve them as quickly as possible. People need to be paid. However, even though I control the budget, I don’t do any of the hiring and I do not have visibility into any of the work being performed. I have to check in with several different people to ensure it’s OK to approve the invoice, and sometimes that can take time. But, it’s part of my job, and I’ve established relationships with everyone involved on my company’s side who understand the urgency and provide me the information I need to approve invoices. The first time, it took me over a week to approve the invoice, I’ve been able to reduce that to 1 day. But the bureaucracy definitely slows things down. But not for months. That’s inexcusable.

  9. Caroline Bowman*

    Oh I’m so glad to hear the OP gathered their courage and did what they needed to do.

    I have a very fond memory of biding my time with a repeat offender who, despite needing me to work very intensively on something, and agreeing, in writing to pay within 14 days of my invoicing them, with no ”oh but our client hasn’t paid us so” type allowances (these are often trotted out as excuses for some reason, as though… I would… care?). Anyway, I was due to have been paid a couple of weeks before Christmas and it was a large chunk of my month earnings. Of course there was no payment despite reminders, then ”oh but you see, the client hasn’t paid so” crap, and it all ended with me tracking down the boss of the company I did the work for on her holiday, very snotty, lecturing me on how I was harassing her and do I not realise it’s Christmas? I said that I was well aware of the date and please could I be paid?
    Eventually I got paid a few days AFTER Christmas and that was that. I knew very well that they’d need my help for a big project circa March-April the following year, and sure enough, the chirpy call came and I was able to compose a really nice, courteous email, explaining that due to repeated broken payment agreements and particularly on account of being lectured about being overly persistent and Ruining My Holiday with my petty ” would like to pay my bills” whining, I would no longer be available to work on their account and wished them all the best. Stunned silence. Beautiful, stunned silence. THEN they had the nerve – the actual nerve – to ask if I knew anyone ”who wants work” and I was able to say that I know quite a few people who might be equipped but these are people I have good relationships with and I wouldn’t want to put them in a difficult financial position so I wouldn’t really be the person to ask.

    This was about 10 years ago now and I still bring out that memory and it warms my sour heart and brings a smile!

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      They have reaped what they have sown! And you got to shut them down TWICE!

    2. OP*

      Ah this is wonderful! And good for you. My agency also called me back saying they now have an updated system yada yada yada would I be interested yada yada yada. I wrote a short ‘thanks but no thanks’ email back and it was beautiful.

  10. Me (I think)*

    I hire freelancers all the time. Good ones are solid gold and need to be well cared for. It drives me crazy when I hear back from one of them looking for a payment that is months old. Our finance folks are making me look bad in that case. Grrr.

  11. Isben Takes Tea*

    At my old job, I managed our department’s freelancers. Our large corporation had a standard policy of not paying late fees (!), regardless of what it said in any contracts or agreements (?!), assuming freelancers would never have the wherewithal to push back. Any time this came up, I would just call the freelancer and have them submit a new invoice for the hours-equivalent rate of their late fee. Accounts Payable never paid attention as long as “late fee” wasn’t a line item on the invoice.

  12. Katie*

    I can forgive companies for a lot of crap but not paying me is unacceptable. For a small delay, I can forgive if it’s happens once. I don’t work for the joy of it.

  13. learnedthehardway*

    I’m dealing with a similar situation. It comes up sometimes in my line of work. In one case, I’m now moving the client to a higher rate and requiring an up-front fee to start a project.

    I walked away from some huge fees in the past, just because I couldn’t deal at the time (had some health issues going on). I should revisit that situation now….

  14. raincoaster*

    Glad to see this. A friend of mine was in this situation and hung on way too ling. The company he was working with owed him $10,000 by the time he left, and it took him three years to collect.

  15. Anastasia*

    Good on you for cutting them off! I also have no clue why companies do this. I’m a freelance writer (in addition to a full-time job in a related but slightly different industry), and there are publications that everyone in my circles know to never write for because they’re so terrible at payments. Freelancers talk!

  16. Alex (they/them)*

    I’ve had to put projects on hold because clients just,, don’t pay our company on time. sometimes for months! It’s so bizarre.

  17. Phil*

    My career was 100% freelance-music, film, and TV production-and we all talked about and knew the slow payers. Needless to say they never got anybody who could work for someone else.

  18. John*

    I spent most of my career at a Fortune 500 company where a vice chairman once, in a town hall, referred to vendors, big and small, as “the many hands in our pockets.”

    Instead of seeing them as valuable partners providing services and expertise we needed, they were reduced to thieves. That kind of mindset is deplorable.

  19. Koala dreams*

    It’s nice to read a positive update! I’m glad that you found a solution, even though it meant losing a customer.

    As to why companies do this: some companies are the only or the major buyer in the local market, so free-lancers are stuck with them and the companies abuse this. It’s a way to get better cash flow and pay less interest and shuffle the costs over to the free-lancers. In small companies, there is often no accounts payable department and the task of paying free-lancers and vendors falls on someone with an unrelated job. A similar thing can happen in large companies, for example when you cut administrative roles or move them to another location. Administrative tasks like approving invoices get de-prioritized by staff whose main focus is their core job. In some small businesses, the owner wants to keep control and don’t trust staff to approve invoices. In large companies, things get lost when departments can’t communicate. Staff might be inadequately trained in procedures and software.

  20. Bookworm*

    YAY, OP! Good for you! Thank you so much for giving us this update and letting us know your good news.

  21. Thea*

    I used to work for a company that did this! I wasn’t a freelancer, but the one that contacted different freelancers and signed the contracts. Then I sent all the information to payroll, and NOTHING happened. Every single freelancer was paid late. I tried everything on my end to change this, but in the end my boss just shrugged and said that it wasn’t important and that the freelancers should be happy to even have work. I hated it and it was one of the reasons I left. Good for op for standing up for themselves!

  22. L*

    Your contacts have no control over a company process. Paying late is actually a way to keep everything afloat. It is on purpose and they don’t care if it harms freelancers, small businesses and even vendors who rely on commission income – people need to pay bills on time, but companies don’t. Write a glassdoor review stating that fact in the headline – ‘Purposely pays contractors 3 months late to stay afloat’. Others need to know so they don’t fall into the same trap as you did.

  23. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    As a freelancer I have grappled with this (are there any who haven’t, I wonder!).
    My only real case was a PR agency. It’s my experience that PR firms are always working in a hurry, everything is always urgent and if I could deliver yesterday they’d love it. A woman at that firm once sent me a job at 11pm, needing delivery by 10am the next day. Somehow they are also always the least organised of my clients too, they didn’t even issue proper POs.
    So at one point I realised that they hadn’t paid several bills and started hassling them. The people who’d placed the orders said to e-mail accounts, but accounts@client.fr never answered.
    It turned out their accountant had left, leaving the accounts in a shoddy state. I got through to the new accountant who started paying me for the jobs, but required me to send proof of all the work. Since there were no POs, I had to dig out old emails where employees clearly asked me to perform the jobs, and then I had to send the actual files to prove that I had performed the jobs. Bit by bit, the bills were paid.
    By February 2020 all but three had been paid. Funnily enough, it was the smallest jobs that were still pending. Then with Covid, I figured there was no point asking them for money since they’d be in dire financial straits, nobody was asking them to coordinate events, and I saw on LinkedIn that all the people I was in contact with there were leaving to work elsewhere. I just decided that chasing my bills was not worth the hassle and I would drop them as a client.
    Then just last month, they contacted me with a job request. I replied that I didn’t want to work with them any more because they hadn’t paid my last bills. After a stunned silence that lasted maybe a week, they wrote back asking me to resend the bills because of course they would pay, and pay they did.
    I just delivered the job last week and the big boss actually wrote to me the other day to thank me for doing such a brilliant job. Fingers crossed they pay me promptly this time!

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