One Freelancer’s Nightmare Late Payment Story and How She Got Her Money

One Freelancer’s Nightmare Late Payment Story and How She Got Her Money

Journalist and photographer Wudan Yan went on vacation in May with about $5,000 in outstanding invoices for her work from three different publications yet to be paid. She didn’t think it would be a problem, until she came back to find that they hadn’t paid her.

So, Yan did what any good journalist would do: reported on how they tried to dodge her late fees and exposed the harassment she faced after attempting to collect the money owed to her by these publications.

Though she didn’t name the publications, the stories were still stunning. One publication refused to honor their own contract, which said they would pay within 30 days, opting to pay her what they owed her past the deadline, but not the late fee. It took quoting NYC’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act and another invoice for the late fee before she got paid. Even then, the company said they paid the fee to settle the matter “amicably” rather than acknowledging that a late fee is a standard practice for things not paid for on time.

It’s quite frustrating as a freelancer when companies pull this sort of behavior. Most landlords won’t waive a late fee because your clients didn’t pay. Banks don’t hesitate to add late fees for missed credit card payments (I had a bank shut down my card after I missed one payment in one decade). Freelancers are no different, and timely payment should be the norm, not the exception.

Yan notes that from this experience, one of the things that was most helpful was the “whisper network” that fellow freelancers shared among each other about which publications pay on time and which don’t.

Yan shares a few more horror stories from the other publications, and though she was able to recoup her money in this case, there are many times when others don’t.

Do you have a freelancing horror story? Share yours in the comments below.

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24 Comments

Matt Williams's picture

I applaud her for this. People need to start treating freelancers properly. They aren't people who have $25,000 in the bank and can wait around for payment until whenever the person feels like it.

I used to write for a company in LA, adapting books into screenplays. It was pretty humdrum and unrewarding work, but it paid the bills, and gave me experience adapting material and working with producers. Anyway, after I would invoice them they stipulated they had 30 days to pay. For over a year they had been good, although the payment always arrived exactly on the 30th day, like they just had to wait until then.

Then came December (I think this was two years ago now). I had invoiced in November and payment was due by December 22nd. $5500. I emailed the manager I worked with around the 15th to ensure I would get the check by then, since the holidays were coming up. He said it would be fine. Come the 22nd... nothing. They were on f**king vacation at that point.

It wasn't until like January 12th or so that I finally got paid. I had no money for Christmas. Couldn't buy anyone a single gift. It also cost me a late fee on January rent and some overdraft fees.

I quit immediately after that.

Pay freelancers on time.

Will Murray's picture

Clearly "people [do not] need to start treating freelancers properly".

Suppliers are nothing more than an accounting line.

Will Murray's picture

One imagines that is frequently your response.

Nvm. Go back to complaining you were unable to make it in business.

Matt Williams's picture

Dude, leave me alone. Stop fucking following me around and leaving trolling comments. Probably doesn't make you seem as cool as you think.

Will Murray's picture

Poor baby gets upset at people and calls them names. And then you get upset when I lean into your assertion that I am an asshole.

You're just a little pathetic, aren't you?

Side note; unlike you, I'm not trying to look cool. Projection much?

Eric Mazzone's picture

Wow, ​dude, you are the one projecting on everyone else. How about you grow up?

Will Murray's picture

Is that your professional opinion, as a photographer?

I don't think "projection" means what you think it means.

Will Murray's picture

Is that your professional opinion, as a photographer?

I don't think "projection" means what you think it means.

Logan Sorenson's picture

Hahaha... You are such a dick Will Murray, get fucked.

Will Murray's picture

I don't think I will.

What does your initial post mean? Could you explain it?

Right now you do look like a jerk, considering that someone asked for a clarification and you decided to dismissively insult them. What does that add to the conversation?

Will Murray's picture

You indicate that you don't comprehend my OP but I look like a jerk...

You really are as dumb as a brick.

I don't care what any of you people think about me.

I don't think I will explain.

I don't know how the law is in the US as I am a Canadian lawyer, but most contract law is fairly universal. Usually, there is no legal right to charge a late fee or late interest unless you have a written contract specifying it or you have an established practice where that particular customer has paid late charges regularly in the past to the point where an implied contract to do so is established. That's why you should provide for it in your client agreement. Otherwise it's fine to try sending an invoice for it, but usually legally unenforceable. Instead, you can ask for interest only if you sue and are awarded judgment for it, and usually the rate is so low it is not worth asking for. The problem of unpaid bills is universal to every industry. There are unfortunately many people out there who feel no obligation to pay for what they receive and many who are hurt by that.

Matt Williams's picture

I think you are right (but I am not a lawyer) - I don't think late fees are legally enforceable if you don't stipulate them beforehand (which she admits is likely true and will do from now on).

The issue though is - they breached a legal contract. If their breaching of that contract causes damages (interest, late fees on rent, whatever) they should be responsible. Which, like you said, would be something you'd have to take to court if they refused.

At least in many industries, you can withhold delivery of whatever it may be that you did until you get paid. Like if you get your car fixed, they won't give it to you until you pay. But yes, it is a problem in a lot of industries (my dad repairs boats, and sometimes people won't have the money when he's done so their boat sits around, in the way, until they can pay for it).

The bigger issue that this points to is the pervasive treatment of freelancers. See my above comment for another example (also the writing industry).

(Photographers also face this issue A LOT)

"universal to every industry" when has this issue occurred in politics, or in public education? I think it would be more accurate to say this happens in every privatized industry without a standard governing agency like an industry guild

Robert Nurse's picture

Stiffing creditors isn't anything new in the US especially if the deadbeat can tie you up in court to the point where fighting for redress is costlier than what's owed. That's the system we have.

I think this is a common tactic for scumbags everywhere.

Not everyone can afford to fight stuff like this because "it's the principle of the thing".

Rob Mitchell's picture

I love working for US clients. Mine pay within a week.
Here, it's becoming the norm that it's end of the month + 60 days. Not so bad if you're in the routine but there's always one who forgets to book the invoice, a detail was wrong on it so it has to wait till the next month, etc, etc.
Late fees here, nobody takes any notice of that, besides, whack a client with a new invoice with the fees and interest, last time you work for them. Although I have a couple that I refuse to work for now, which annoyed them no-end.

One client running now for 2 months for a job that was urgent. Pain in the arse.

Joe Martinez's picture

I saw this posted on twitter and I'm really glad to see it here on Fstoppers. I hope everyone takes the time to click the link and read her story to see how professionally she handled the b.s. explanations and veiled threats from the publications she was working for. I've been afraid of including late payment fees in my contracts for a while for fear that enforcing them (especially with first time clients or clients I had worked hard to get) would make them less likely to hire me in the future. But I've learned that including those terms, making clients aware of them, and enforcing them is really important for freelancers. Late payments from clients eat into bills, rent, fees, and make it hard to continue running a business. I'm glad there's now a great example in Wudan of how to stand up for yourself in these situations!

Dan Marchant's picture

UK law allows for creditors to charge a statutory interest charge plus a defined debt collection charge to be added to commercial debts (b2b not b2c) in the event of late payment.

https://www.gov.uk/late-commercial-payments-interest-debt-recovery

Daris Fox's picture

And if you're claiming late payment from a client you can claim through raising a Small Claims (England/Wales) or Simple Procedure in Scotland. In Scotland it's best to make a statement of due date on the invoice, and/or have additional terms in the contract. You can also claim 'reasonable' costs incurred in recovery of the debt, though this differs between the regional laws. This is why it's critical you state the jurisdiction that the contract/invoice is bound under.

I've had my lot of late payments and a few of them rather irritatingly late. I have been fortunate and not been in a position where it has caused me more than a nuisance. Oh, and all my commercial contracts stipulate late payment fees, not that it changes much when it comes to on-time payments.

I have had a similar experience, though, where I entered into a large contract with a big company providing work for their customer, a government institution with offices distributed around the country. At the same time, I had an ongoing deal with one salesperson from another department to do work for one of her large government customers. We did not have a contract, just an oral agreement. The salesperson was very happy with our deal as her customer liked my work and always wanted me back, adding to her revenue stream with hardly any work for herself.

The other department (the one with the new contract) had just changed its head, who called me to a meeting. At the meeting (before I had done any work on the contract yet) he informed me that he did not want me to start at all as he had his own person for the job. He also told me that he would not pay me a penny, despite the contract being for a set of specific jobs for which I had already engaged assistants. When challenging the legality of this action, he said "Sue us!" I then contacted the CEO of the company, who I knew from previous dealings but he just shrugged and said he would not interfere and I would have to deal with the head of the department.

Hearing this, I decided not to sue the company (too much hassle, too much distraction, and possibly not enough gain) but rather not to deal with them any more. I invited the salesperson from the other department out for coffee and told her what had happened, that I would not do any more work for the company and therefore not for her. She was irritated (at the company, not me) but not really surprised as the management seemed to have changed to a less than forthright way of dealing with contractors, especially the smaller ones — a sign of financial troubles, as it often is. She told me she would inform the customer and that she would try to transfer that particular contract to me if they agreed to it, which they did.

This direct contract with the government department led to better pay (no percentage for the company) and more work for the department, and for the next six years or so (until they were eliminated after a change of government) they provided about 80+% of my income. To this day (15+ years later) I still get the occasional job through contacts met there.

Johnny Rico's picture

I stopped reading her blog post when she re-invoiced w/ an attached late fee before reaching out to both her contact then accounts payable to see if there was a mistake, or they missed the email. Every instance I've had was fixed by a phone call and the check was posted next day, no bridges burnt.