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Tips for collecting late payments for freelance work

Should your ATM receipt balance be higher?
Should your ATM receipt balance be higher? Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The beauty of being a freelancer is working your own hours, waking up when you want to, building your own set of contacts and creating your own brand. The downside of being an artist (writer, performer, painter, etc.) is being forced to be the bill collector.

A company worth its weight will want to pay you on time all the time. Just as that company would like to be paid promptly by advertisers and make income from your talent, that company should also be held accountable for payment to you.

Of course as a freelancer be prepared for a few bumps in the road:

  • Companies that still prefer scanned or print invoices may also insist on paying your fees by snail mail. Even if a company sends payments on time, if you're both dealing with a post office that may have delays (ex. the polar vortex lead to many Chicago post offices not delivering mail for several days) then you'll have to wait it out.
  • Companies that pay through online methods, such as PayPal, may pay you on time. However, even if you choose the "Withdraw Money" option the same day that funds are sent to PayPal, there can still be a three to five business day delay before it's in your bank account.
  • Be careful with invoices. Even if you make one mistake or don't update an e-mail address, mailing address or Social Security number, the company can easily blame the delayed payment on you. Before sending over any information, make sure your payment documents are accurate. Otherwise, your payment could be delayed until the next month if their accounting apartment only sends payment in a certain time frame.
  • Know ahead of time if the company works on weekends or holidays. For example, if a company pays on the 20th of each month but MLK Day is on the third Monday of January, payment delays can get caught in the crossfire. Same deal with any other federal holiday. Expect a one-day delay as you would with post office deliveries.

So what happens when you've done everything correctly and still haven't been paid on time?

If a company says they'll pay you on a certain day (and nothing above has slowed down payment), then it's time to find out why the company is taking its time with your earnings.

  • Contact the company's billing department or support team to let them know payment hasn't been sent. The delay could be human error on their end. The company could believe it has paid you already and has no idea you're staring at your own bill's late payment pricing.
  • Wait the required time it would usually take for the company's billing department or support department to respond. As much as you want your money now, if the company works with several contractors plus employees, you will have to give them a chance to respond.
  • Send an additional invoice just in case they did not receive the first one. But make sure to note on the invoice that you have already sent a previous invoice and this is a follow-up. If payments are automated and no invoices are required, send a "Request Money" invoice through online sites, such as PayPal, to notify them that money was not sent to you on time.
  • If you still have not received payment and the company is accredited through the Better Business Bureau (BBB), file a complaint. While BBB warns that it doesn't handle "workplace disputes," if you are an independent contractor, you don't fall into the first category. (Side note: BBB also doesn't handle discrimination claims; matters that are or have been litigated; or claims about the quality of health or legal services.)
  • If your complaint is accepted, BBB will send your complaint to the company within two business days. The company then has 14 days to respond. If no response is sent, then a second response will be made. You'll be notified by BBB with the company's response or lack of a response. Complaints are usually handled in 30 days or less, and complaints are also available on the company's BBB record. On the company's BBB page, you'll also be able to see other customer reviews and complaints in the last three years.
  • (Note: Be prepared to break ties with the company after filing an official report. While an honorable company will be apologetic about not paying its contractors [and employees] on time, there is the possibility that a shady company will be mad that you outed it and choose to not work with you. It's up to you whether you're prepared for this reaction. But if the company won't pay you for your services, is it really a loss?)
  • Thinking optimistically, if the company pays you for your services and provides the proper response, don't become paranoid the next time a payment date rolls around. Give them the benefit of the doubt and hope there is no repeat circumstance. Should a late payment become a pattern (three times or more), it's best to start looking for work with companies that respect your time and talent more. You may want to break ties on your own. No matter what the pay is, it's not worth chasing the company around. If you want to play bill collector, at least get paid to be a real bill collector.

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