When the Check Isn’t in the Mail

Pressland Editors
Oct 11, 2019 · 8 min read

Late and missing payments upend lives and deplete the ranks of non-wealthy journalists. Is an organized response underway?

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Holy Labor Law, Batman: For too many freelancers, pay windows range from 90 days to never.

By Tatiana Walk-Morris

Micco Caporale was not blindsided by the difficulties of freelance life. Growing up, her father did contract work for the sets of commercial and independent film projects. When business was good, he made financial decisions for the family based on five-figure commissions. When clients failed to pay him on time, things were harder. At one point, multiple clients missed or failed to make their payments, causing his business to go into a tailspin. Micco went from attending a private school, to attending a public school, and finally, to “couch surfing” with friends and relatives after her family lost their home.

Still, the young Caporale dreamed of becoming an independent artist or writer. She began to realize this in her 30s, scoring bylines in publications like In These Times, Pitchfork and Nylon.

Another publication she contributed to was Noisey, the Vice music vertical. In April 2018, the site published her article on Ann Boleyn, the heavy metal singer. After she invoiced the site, she received an automatic email notifying her that she should expect payment within 40 to 60 days. When the due date passed and no check arrived, she followed up with the publication—once, twice, three times, without success. Finally, in October 27, 2018, she filed a complaint under New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, a law that took effect in May 2017 and established penalties for failure to compensate independent contractors. Shortly after she filed the complaint, Vice Media paid her $200. The check arrived nine months after her article ran.

“Editors wield an incredible amount of power. It’s the difference between, ‘Can I pay my rent or not?’,” Caporale told me at a coffee shop in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. She met me after a night shift at her retail job, her first full-time “day job” in six years.

She explained that, after food and rent, she usually has just enough left over to pay her quarterly taxes. She only stopped beating herself up, she says, when she realized how many other people were in the same boat. Like many former freelancers, she said the safety net of a full-time job became necessary.

“When you’re in an economically precarious situation, it’s hard to plan for the future, because you’re just living in the now,” she said. “You think about the future in terms of, ‘How am I going to meet the bare minimum of all my bills?”

For independent journalists, the consequences of late and missing payments extend beyond mere inconvenience. They place the burden of pursuing checks upon freelancers, a form of unpaid labor. They also upend freelance journalists’ already precarious finances, leading to angry landlords and possibly switched-off heat and electricity. More insidiously, their ripple-effects dissuade those without a financial safety net from pursuing the profession. As news media companies continue to shrink and shutter, freelancers and advocates say late payments and nonpayment is pushing independent journalists — especially diverse journalists — out of the profession, and thus contributing to the long-term deterioration of news quality.

Caporale is not alone in using the newly instituted Freelance Isn’t Free Act to confront this problem head-on. According to documents obtained by Pressland from New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy and Standards, more than 20 major media companies received at least one Freelance Isn’t Free Act complaint from independent workers between May 2017 and December 2018. Among them are some of the biggest names in publishing, including Condé Nast (two complaints), Modern Luxury (two complaints), and Northside Media (eight complaints).

Pressland contacted these companies and publications, some of which were no longer operational, or had not responded as of press time. Among those that responded, most claimed the complaints were due to explainable errors, rate disputes, and one-offs due to glitches that were quickly corrected. Others opted not offer any on-the-record explanation for the complaints.

But Freelance Act grievances are just one measure of the problem. More freelancers hire attorneys who write and send demand-letters to delinquent publications. This was the course pursued by the freelancer Wudan Yan, who documented her struggle to claim nearly $5,000 worth of unpaid invoices and late fees on her website. (Pressland viewed the letters, but Yan declined to name the delinquent publications on the record.)

“I looked at the [Freelance Act] claims process, and the interface was not very clear. I don’t know how [the law] would’ve worked for me,” Yan said. “All I want is my late fee and for this to be over. What’s going to get me to that goal fastest? That seemed to be getting a lawyer to write a letter.”

After publishing her essay, many commenters encouraged Yan to start a savings account for such situations. She found this advice frustrating, she says, because she needs any extra funds for emergencies. People in other industries wrote to inform her that it’s normal to request full or half deposits, making her wonder why journalism doesn’t work in a similar fashion.

The persistent problem of late payments has pushed others, like Maxwell Williams, a freelance writer, to question his future in journalism.

In August, Williams contacted the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) to file a lawsuit against V Magazine for unpaid wages totaling $3,050. VLA helps independent contractors file claims in small claims court and send demand letters to delinquent publications. Of course, taking a grievance to civil or small claims court can oftentimes be costlier and more time-consuming than the wages owed, thus rendering it a waste of a freelancers’ time.

Williams explained that various publications owed him a total amount in excess of $11,000. Williams, who has freelanced on the side since 2004 and went full-time freelance in 2012, said unpaid wages have made it difficult to make more than minimum credit card debt payments and stay on top of his rent. He has had to sell off his assets to stay afloat and is considering selling his car.

“It’s not a job that you go into thinking that you’re going to make six-figures a year, ’cause you’re not. If you don’t have anything to start with, there’s no way to really start,” Williams said.

A few weeks after our interview, Williams emailed me to tell me he had taken a contract marketing gig and he has since filed a Freelance Isn’t Free Act grievance against V Magazine.

Though it applies to New York City businesses, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act covers many of the country’s largest media companies. Advocates say one of the biggest problems is making independent workers aware of its existence.

Caitlin Pearce, executive director of the Freelancers Union, said the organization was promoting the Freelance Isn’t Free Act to its 450,000 members to raise awareness about the law and advocate for similar legislation across the country. Meanwhile, the National Writers Union has represented independent journalists in payment disputes with entities like Pride Media and Ebony magazine. When receiving inquiries from writers seeking overdue wages, Larry Goldbetter, president of the Union, said the organization asks freelancers to reach out to other freelancers experiencing the same problem, because they’re likely not the only one.

As the organization pursues delinquent media companies, Goldbetter said he has heard a variety of excuses from publications.“[They say] ‘We’re working on it. We’ve had some problems. We have a new change accounting system.’ You name it.” While there is some truth to these responses, Goldbetter said publications can’t impose their problems on freelancers.

“It’s all bullshit,” he said. “You can’t put that on the backs of freelancers. If you can’t afford to pay the people who work for you, then you shouldn’t be in business. Go find something else to do.”

Freelancers aren’t the only ones who are weighted with the unpaid labor required of late payments. Delinquent publications also put editors — already overloaded with managing editorial operations — in the line of fire with angry and frustrated contributors. A former Condé Nast senior staffer who requested anonymity said the company’s complex payments procedures often resulted in slow payments, particularly for contractors seeking payment for first time commissions.

At Condé Nast, the senior staffer hired and on-boarded freelancers to take on long-term, expensive projects, especially those involving graphic design and videos. The company had different contracts for freelancers of different classifications, meaning that the company had freelancer agreements for contributors providing one-off stories versus freelancers who were writing multiple articles, the staffer said.

The staffer noted that Condé Nast had undergone cost-cutting, which shifted the payments and contract responsibilities from the managing editor onto senior staffers. Though calling the accounts payable department on a freelancer’s behalf would usually speed up the payment process, such calls take time away from a busy editor’s mounting responsibilities, she said.

“I definitely had some freelancers who got paid late a lot, even when we were doing everything correctly,” the staffer said. “It just took forever because of the bureaucratic mess of everything.”

Checking in on invoices and fielding freelancers’ questions took up a couple hours each week when her team frequently used contractors, the staffer said. She also had to be mindful of processing invoices if she was traveling for work or on vacation. She said she received late payments inquiries from freelancers at least once per month, and that the issue sometimes costs her relationships with “amazing” contributors.

“To get published in the New Yorker or Vanity Fair or wherever is such a big deal that some people, if they can financially swing it, might be willing to take that risk,” the former Condé Nast staffer said. “But I think it really will cut down the pool of new and diverse voices.”

As journalism jobs decline, newsrooms have started to become more diverse. According to the 2018 American Society of News Editors survey, the journalism industry continues to bleed jobs, but what jobs remain are going to candidates from more varied backgrounds. The survey found that people of color comprised nearly 23 percent of newsroom employees, up from 16.5 percent in 2017, including 19 percent of newsroom managers, up from 13 percent in 2017.

But Caporale and others note that journalism, in particular the ranks of freelancers, continues to suffer from a multi-faceted diversity problem that cuts across race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status. As an example of how news coverage is affected, she pointed to the “crappy 2016 election analysis.”

“When you have a professional system that, by design, privileges those who can afford pay-gap periods, it’s no coincidence that upper-middle-class white men thrive in that system,” Caporale wrote in an email. “White men know the cultural etiquette for networking and getting mentored by other upper-middle-class white men. And they can afford to take ‘opportunities’ like unpaid internships, low rates just to snag a byline, and waiting on paychecks.”

Pearce, the director of the Freelancers Union, added that women and people of color are disproportionately impacted by instances of under- and late- payment. Indeed, the biggest cases that the NWU has handled have involved black writers and women writers, Goldbetter said, adding that women writers and writers of color are hit first and hardest by delinquent payments.

“As more companies go freelance,” Pearce said, “there becomes this tiered system of full-timers who may be unionized, and people who don’t have the job and income security. And that’s going to impact the things that we’re exposed to through media outlets and the quality of the news that we read.”

Tatiana Walk-Morris is a Chicago-based independent journalist. Find her on Twitter @Tati_WM

Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: October 11, 2019
Author: Tatania Walk-Morris
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Freelancers Union / #Freelanceisntfree Campaign

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