I was owed about $5,000 from late-paying publications. I tried to hold them all accountable. Here’s what happened.
In late May, I returned home after four weeks on the road. I spent two of those weeks on vacation, and another two on the East Coast, visiting family and friends. I hadn’t worked much in about a month and — perhaps against my better judgment — I looked at my checking account, hoping that all my outstanding payments had been made in the time I was away.
They had not. A payment of nearly $2800 was past due. Another $1000 from a separate publication was also missing. And a third client owed me approximately $1200. I hadn’t received the check..
I have been freelancing for over five years. In that time frame, I’ve never been in a circumstance where that much money was cumulatively owed to me and not paid on time. Usually, when the check didn’t come, the most I did was follow up with my editor or the head of an accounts payable department to ask when I would expect to get paid. But being owed about $5000 really hit critical mass — that’s the minimum amount of money I need to bring in every single month to put away some of it for taxes, then pay my rent and credit card bills.
Looking at my bank account statement, I was first shocked, then panicked, then livid. After I cycled through those emotions, I decided to take action.
One publication, based in New York City, has a contract that explicitly states they will pay their contractors in 30 days. I sent them an invoice for a late fee, which amounted to 20% of the money I was owed: $200.
This was the email I sent:
“Hello, I am attaching an invoice for a late fee, which I send to clients who stipulate 30 days payment in the agreed upon freelance contract, but payment is overdue. Payment for my original invoice was sent April 16. Please confirm receipt of this email.”
Because that email went unanswered, I followed up five days later. In return, I received this response.
I completely understand that it's frustrating to not get paid within 30 days and our apologies for the delay in payment. Since our accounting team is processing a high volume of invoices sometimes there is a slight delay. We do not pay late fees, but we are operating in good faith here and [REDACTED] is doing her best to have accounting pay it out ASAP.”
I was confused as to why a publication would state in their contract that they would pay invoices within 30 days, but not accept that if they breached their own legally binding, contractual terms, someone would try and hold them accountable.
About a week later, after I had shelved my anger at their email response, I wrote them again.
“I received payment in the amount of $1000 yesterday, Monday June 3.
However, because [REDACTED] is based in NYC, it legally falls under the city's Freelance Isn't Free Act (§ 20-929) which stipulates that the hiring party must pay no later than 30 days after completion of the freelancer's services under the contract. This is a re-iteration of [REDACTED]’s own contracts that stipulates 30 days. My original invoice was sent on April 16.
The invoice for a late fee is attached once again. Please confirm receipt of this email and let me know if you have any questions.”
Their response, two days later, said:
“I am confirming receipt. Although we do not believe a late fee is required in your case, in order to resolve this matter amicably, we will be making an exception and processing the additional invoice you provided. You can expect payment for this invoice no later than 30 days from the date indicated on your invoice.”
Once again, I scowled at this message. A late fee is required if a payment is late. Paying a late fee on a client’s part isn’t to settle a matter “amicably.” It is a way to settle a matter professionally.
I received payment for my late fee on June 11.
Six days after I had not received payment from the client who owed me about $2800, I wrote an email to the accounts payable person and looped in my editor, asking if they could help check on the status of my payments.
My editor responded: “All payments have been made — we have had this conversation on email several weeks ago. Per our records [REDACTED] does not owe you anything. If you have some information to the contrary, please do let me know and we can look into it.”
Separately, I also sent a late fee directly to the persons handling money, citing the contract which stipulated the dates for the pay cycle. “As per terms of the contract,” I wrote, “the outstanding payment for the two stories listed above is deemed late.”
“It seems there was some confusion on the rates, but I think that likely lands on us,” the administrator wrote to me. “I have processed this payment.”
(The late fee was paid out almost immediately.)
A week later, after multiple follow-ups on my late story fees, my editor, in essence, said, “Just give us a day or two to sort it out so we can all move on, and one of us will get back to you.”
A week passed. Nothing.
On June 4th, I wrote my editor and accounts payable a detailed list of the monies I was owed, when those were paid, and any outstanding payments.
On June 7th, the pay for my stories was finally resolved. Yet, the accounts payable administrator wrote back to me:
Reading this email over and over, I wondered: had I been too difficult? Should I be faced with the threat of never working with a client ever again when all I intended to do in the first place was be strictly professional? (Which seems to not be quite… professional on the client’s part if the contractor has delivered everything as expected and on time, anyway.) And who is to decide what is more “reasonable”? If a publication is in the wrong and pays late — and admits to it — why not own up to those wrongs by paying out a late fee? It is what anyone else would have to do if they didn’t pay their rent, healthcare bills, or credit card statements on time. Why do publications who hire freelance writers get a pass when the other businesses operates on a monthly payment cycle?
I responded with:
On June 12th — at which point my payment was nearly a month late — the issue was finally resolved.
The third client I needed to follow up with — also based in New York City — failed to reimburse me for my travel expenses on time. All told, those expenses amounted to a little less than $200.
I sent my editor an email about the late payment and included a late fee.
I was confused: she had acknowledged her own fault, yet declined to pay a penalty because the other payments were on time? That logic evaded me.
What’s more is that it’s much more likely for a freelancer to put their expenses for travel on a credit card. When we are not reimbursed for travel in a timely manner, we are paying interest on someone else’s late payment.
I didn’t feel like pointing out this flawed logic and expending even more emotional energy in pushing back; that might have never gotten me anywhere. Instead, I found a lawyer who writes letters for freelancers demanding payment (pro-bono!). This lawyer helped draft a demand letter to the magazine for their late payment. My late payment was a meager fee, but as of last week, the legal counsel at the magazine agreed to pay my late fee.
I’m still waiting for my check.
For me, freelancing as a journalist is not just about being a good reporter and cultivating relationships with colleagues and editors — it is also a business. It is a business that survives on being paid fair rates, and being paid on time. Over the years, I’ve fallen into a routine where I expect to receive the equivalent of a ‘regular paycheck’ every month. When that doesn’t happen, my entire system breaks down. It erodes my ability to do my actual work.
My goal here was not to name and shame any publications, but to show others how the industry writ large does not take these concerns from freelancers about late payment seriously, even when we try to hold them accountable. Some of these responses show that publications don’t even see contracts as terms that are legally binding. It seems that we aren’t taken seriously until we are relentlessly persistent, or pull out the big guns by finding a lawyer who can speak on our behalf.
It goes to show how the industry continues to exploit freelancers and think that a note — “so sorry!” — is enough.
“So sorry!” doesn’t work when you don’t want to pay a late fee because your rent to your landlord is late.
Your credit card company doesn’t care for “so sorry!” when you pay your statement late; they will charge a penalty.
Some healthcare companies will even decline you service if you can’t pay your monthly premium on time.
During this time period when I was so diligently following up on my late payments, I wondered what happened in the ecosystem of journalism that created this expectation that freelancers would somehow be okay if they went months without getting paid. Perhaps it is an extension of the idea that only people who are financially privileged enough can be freelancers. Therefore, if a payment is late, that freelancer will have a cushion and will be okay.
Paying contractors on time feels like the bare minimum that any publication can do if they value the work that their freelancers do for them. Watching editors who tout themselves as people who advocate for freelancers and not help them get paid on time really makes me wonder how much they actually care.
But this lack of accountability also exists because freelancers typically don’t speak up about late fees. When I’ve asked one of my colleagues why, she said, “there are too many battles to fight at once.”
It’s true: if I was in the middle of a busy month of work, I might not have had the time — or emotional energy — to wrangle late fees from clients. My time would have been better spent looking for new story ideas and writing pitches.
It won’t be until we all start holding publications accountable for late payments that we can turn the tide. It seemed to me the publications I worked with here are not accustomed to having to pay out late fees likely because others haven’t bothered in the past. Of course, sometimes the money that we are owed from a publication is only a few hundred bucks, so we end up calculating whether or not hassling a client to pay tens of dollars is worth it. It often nets out to a hard no. An organizer from the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union I spoke with said that it’s rare for anyone to go to the lengths that I did to get outlets to pay a late fee.
One of the most fascinating things I’ve stumbled across while freelancing is the whisper network. Freelancers not only warn each other about publications that steal our ideas, editors who ghost, and those who expand the scope or word count of our stories without any additional pay — but also publications that pay late. This sort of information impacts who we decide to work with or not. Ultimately, it may mean that really important stories never get told.