Rachel Northrop shouldn’t have to use her credit card to buy groceries.
She’s a successful young professional, after all, freelancing for several trade journals about tea and coffee production after having published a book on the subject in 2013. But the checks from one magazine arrived later and later. Then the company stopped returning phone calls, without paying Northrop $9,000 she’s owed — leaving her struggling to make rent.
“Because I’m not being paid regularly, I’ve had to reevaluate whether I can do it, even though I’m working consistently,” says Northrop, 27, of maintaining her freelance lifestyle in New York. Regular employees at least have some administrative recourse if a company shorts them on wages — being a contractor means she’d have to take the magazine to small claims court in order to collect.
“Non-payment paralyzes the most motivated sector of people, who are willing to work on their own schedule, be independent and self sufficient,” Northrop says. “When other people hear this, it makes people think ‘let me stay at this boring job that I don’t even like.’”
The New York City Council last Thursday passed a bill to help people like Northrop. The law requires all employers to put contracts in writing, imposes civil and criminal penalties for taking longer than 30 days to deliver payments, and awards double damages plus attorneys fees to contractors who’ve been stiffed — similar to the protections now enjoyed by regular employees.
Legislation-sponsor Councilman Brad Lander, whose Brooklyn district is full of them, got the idea for the bill from the Freelancer’s Union, which now claims 280,000 members.
“It’s almost become something that people view as the price of doing business, just accepting that they won’t get paid,” says Sara Horowitz, the Freelancers Union’s founder and director. “It’s really crazy, because it’s a lot of money, and it’s really bad practice for companies to think they can do this.”
It might seem odd that a freelancer would work without a written agreement. Although oral contracts are enforceable, it’s more difficult to get a judgment based on emails or conversations, especially if a deadline wasn’t specified. But particularly in the fast-moving restaurant, tech, and arts worlds, asking for a formal document can mean you miss out on precious work.
“You get into the habit of winging it. And by the time you have a much larger project, you kind of want to dive right into it,” says Lily Meyer, who works as an independent theater lighting designer, web designer, calligrapher, and event planner. “But when you’re waiting for the check, you’re like ‘gosh I wish I’d figured this out ahead of time.’ Sometimes people won’t take you if they think there’s too much admin going on. It’s a real spiral.”