Freelancers Now Free To Go Broke — Late Payers Worse Than Ever

The freelance life — no cubicle, no boss, no schedule — can look so alluring. It increasingly means no income, reports The Wall Street Journal:

About 40% of freelancers had trouble getting paid in 2009, according to a survey released in mid-April by the New York-based Freelancers Union, a 135,000-member organization for independent contractors across the country in fields such as media, technology, and advertising. It was the first year the group asked the question on its member survey. And more than three out of four freelancers said they’ve had trouble getting paid over the course of their careers, according to organization.

The problem could become more acute as independent contractors emerge as a more central piece of the work force. The financial crisis and the resulting high unemployment thrust many professionals into the ranks of freelance workers, which may continue to grow despite signs of an economic recovery.

Littler Mendelson, a San Francisco-based employment law firm with 49 offices nationwide, predicts that in 2010 half of previously eliminated positions filled will be filled by contingent workers—such as independent contractors, freelancers, and temp workers—accounting for as much as 25% of the work force nationwide— based on client interviews and a survey conducted by a staffing analysis firm.

Since independent contractors aren’t covered by most federal employment laws, they don’t enjoy the same legal protections on wages as permanent employees, says a spokesman for the Department of Labor. If a permanent employee doesn’t get paid, federal or state labor departments can fine companies and even prosecute company executives. But independent contractors often have to turn to the court system, in most cases small claims, if they go unpaid.

I wrote about this trend for The New York Times last year — after two publications did their level best to screw me out of almost $7,000 I’d earned. One owed me $5,600 and sent me emails telling me of their financial troubles. Like I care. If I can run my business efficiently, so can you. I found a contingency lawyer, sued and won half (the lawyer, sad to say, took a third of that.) I hired another lawyer — a softball buddy who helped out for two bottles of Stoli — whose letter to the other deadbeat produced payment within two days of his letter, after months of nyah-nyahing and stonewalling.

These losers always manage to pay for everything else — their office space, heat, light and gas for their vehicles.

Freelancers? Feh, they can wait.

No we can’t — not with credit lines restricted and credit card APRs now shooting through the roof. My bank is charging me $10 every time I use my overdraft protection (line of credit) — this in addition to the usurious interest rate they charge on the balance and cutting my line of credit from $20,000 to $15,000 — because…they can.

If someone isn’t paying you, sue their ass. Don’t “be nice.” You don’t want to burn every  bridge, but some look much better in flames. If a client is screwing you and smiling, why would you want them anyway?

Low-Wage Workers Stiffed, Women Worst, National Study Finds

Joe $20 dollar bill - back
Image by sbwoodside via Flickr

That’s why they call them sweatshops — 43 percent of apparel and textile manufacturing workers surveyed in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago said they’d been cheated of the minimum wage they were expecting. The survey, released this week by the Center for Urban Economic Development, the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, was funded by four foundations, Ford, Russell Sage, (which gave $327,924) Joyce and Haynes.

Women, no surprise, were far more likely to suffer minimum wage violations than men, with the worst affected — not surprisingly — illegal immigrants, who made up 39 percent of those surveyed, (31 percent were legal immigrants and 30 percent native-born Americans.) The typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of an average weekly wage of $339 — about a 15 percent loss in pay. African-Americans were three times more likely than whites to suffer a wage violation.

“We were all surprised by the high prevalence rate,” said professor Ruth Milkman, one of the study’s authors. Why? Maybe because she hasn’t ever, or likely for a long time, worked at the very bottom of the labor ladder. Anyone who’s worked a low-wage job knows you take it because you’re desperate and out of choices. When you’re desperate you’ll put up with whatever your employer wants just to keep that paycheck coming, whatever they chip out of it.

In 1999 and 2000, author Barbara Ehrenreich worked as a waitress in Key West, Fla., as a cleaning woman and a nursing home aide in Portland, Maine, and in a Wal-Mart in Minneapolis, Minn. She wrote about it,in “Nickeled and Dimed” offering a rare look inside a world most of us try to flee as soon as possible and pray we never see again.

Best of the bunch surveyed were residential construction — dinging workers only 13 percent — and home health care, at 12 percent. Tied for second-worst employers, with personal and repair services? Private households, aka nannies, maids and other domestic workers. Ripping off workers is sick, but cheating someone you’ve chosen to bring into your home or care for your kids? Nice example to set.

Among many others, The New York Times ran a story about the study and an editorial calling for tougher laws and penalties.

Has this ever happened to you?