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 earlier this year, 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. 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.’”
New York City, however, might soon see a fix for that problem. A bill being introduced in the City Council Monday would require all employers to put contracts in writing, impose civil and criminal penalties for taking longer than 30 days to deliver payments, and award double damages plus attorneys fees to contractors who’ve been stiffed — similar to the protections now enjoyed by regular employees.
“It’s clear that there are some companies that have made it a business practice to not pay freelancers,” says the legislation’s sponsor Councilman Brad Lander, whose Brooklyn district is full of them. “I see this as one critical step in one broader project of building protections for workers in the independent economy.”
That constituency has been getting more vocal in recent years. Lander got the idea for the bill from the Freelancer’s Union, which now claims 280,000 members (joining is free; the 20-year-old organization funds itself through a for-profit arm that provides insurance benefits). In a survey, 70 percent of members said they lost some money on account of delinquent clients.