Not Getting Paid?

Months ago, I wrote a piece on what to do if you aren’t getting paid. I listed a lot of things you can do to try and light a fire under a client to get those paychecks coming, but one thing I didn’t address is circumstancial issues. I recently attended a writer’s meeting for one of my freelance clients where I learned that someone’s trip to the hospital was the source of a major delay in payment for anyone not on direct deposit (read-the whole freelance staff).

It’s easy to forget that even successful clients often have to rely on a single person for critical services such as accounting and payments, IT support or working directly with a team of freelancers. When you don’t deal with the company except to write and send invoices you can miss how the inner workings break down because of vacations, illness, or company upheaval. One of my clients hired me on before the company was a legal entity, resulting in a serious delay in compensation because there were literally no funds from the new company available to pay.

These issues are a two-edged sword. For someone like me who is a stickler for professional conduct, there’s a real need to balance the urgency of the bills, the desire to keep working, and how one measures the client’s actions or lack of them.

Let’s face it, freelance writers are at the low end of the priority list when it comes to the day-to-day trials and tribulations. There’s a perception that we need the client more than they need us. That’s one reason why we are never informed about situations that delay payment or other problems where we are left wondering what the hell is going on. We aren’t part of the inner circle at the company–why should they tell us about the latest trouble, who got sick and can’t come to work for three days, or who just quit with no notice?

But editors, I urge you to take a second look at your freelance team’s contributions and ask yourself if you might give up just a small amount of information where it directly affects the writers. Your staff–freelance or not–deserve to know when a situation might delay the rent or a car payment. Your staff should be informed if a project is cancelled or modified. Freelancers don’t need to be told EVERYTHING. Just the information pertinent to their financial and professional planning.

Some of us have the luxury of being able to do without a paycheck from one client for a month or so. I know plenty of freelancers who can’t, and it’s very important for these people to be able to plan their lives accordingly–especially when their clients know things that should be passed along. As in, “Our accounting person just left the company and we need to train someone new to do the books. Your check will be delayed by two weeks or so.” You don’t have to tell us you terminated the accountant for embezzlement and called the police. We don’t need to know and don’t care. Just explain the situation.

For my part, I try to be understanding, fair, and professional when I experience delays in payment or details about assigned work. What I don’t EVER do is get hostile or write angry e-mails. Every time I have ever written an e-mail in a huff, I’ve lived to regret it. I usually like to give the client a chance to do right by me and maintain the relationship. When enough time has passed where I feel I am treated unreasonably, I never threaten. I simply state my intentions and let the client do the math.

Good writers are NOT a dime a dozen. Average writers, newcomers with promise, and bad writers are plentiful. If you are a good writer, your work will be valued–or at least it should be. There are people who don’t understand the difference between someone who turns in clean, readable copy on deadline and a writer who needs help—and those people don’t belong in our business.

The sad fact of life we all have to get used to? They ARE in our business and are here to stay. The difference between a good writer and an average writer? The good writer can work into a career where dealing with these people becomes an OPTION. Good editors understand this—even when they don’t pay on time. Bad editors learn the hard way.

I am fortunate that I have a lot of very good editors to work with, and I don’t take them for granted. Sometimes establishing that relationship means enduring some rocky circumstances, but if you handle a difficult situation with skill, it can result in a lasting and profitable partnership. What I have learned in my years as a freelancer includes realizing when things break down –lack of payment of communication–there may be a side of the story you aren’t privy to that makes all the difference. Give your editor the benefit of the doubt if you believe it is warranted. You might discover mitigating circumstances that change your perspective of the problem.