Law helps freelancers collect from deadbeats

BY MARY REINHOLZ | Long before the Freelance Isn’t Free Act — a bill said to benefit an estimated 500,000 so-called independent workers — was implemented in New York City last year, this wretched scribe was frantically hustling freelance assignments to stay afloat in the dark days after 9/11, acting as a stringer for The New York Times and a couple of other daily newspapers.

My full-time writing / editing job at Graphic Arts Monthly, on Hudson St., had been abruptly eliminated during a company-wide downsizing by its corporate parent, Reed Business Information. During sparse work periods as a freelancer, I subsisted on a lot of cheap noodle dishes and paced the aisles of Jack’s 99¢ Stores for bargains. Con Edison once turned off my electricity because of late payment from an upscale magazine.

Omar Cordy, a musician-turned-electrician, recovered payments thanks to improved freelancer protections.

Then there were my mostly male part-time bosses, gifted guys who would leave their jobs suddenly for better positions, retire, relocate out of state or get fired, sometimes leaving me with a successor who already had his own stable of writers. One longtime Yup blog editor refused to pay me a kill fee for an assigned story he suddenly lost interest in after I had conducted a week’s worth of research. Untold thousands, possibly millions of other freelancers (figures are inexact) have been stiffed by unscrupulous operators or have had to wait months before someone cuts them a check for services rendered.

Enter the above-referenced Freelance Isn’t Free Act of 2016, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. to provide freelancers with protections against wage theft and tardy payment.

The act has been in effect since May 15 of last year and, over a year’s time, prompted 299 inquiries and 264 complaints from freelancers. Enforcement of the act resulted in the recovery of $254,866 in lost wages, according to a report this May from the Office of Labor Policy & Standards, a go-to city agency established in 2015 by Mayor de Blasio. (OLPS can be reached by calling 311 or visiting its office at 42 Broadway, ninth floor, during business hours. The telephone number is 212-436-0380.)

The legislation has “proven to be a great tool for freelancers to assert their rights,” said Lorelei Salas, commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees OLPS. “It helps level the playing field and brings some protections for workers who are not part of a union contract.”

Progressive Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander introduced the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in partnership with the Brooklyn-based Freelancers Union. Supported by de Blasio and unanimously passed by the City Council in October 2016, the act became part of the city’s administrative code. It gives eligible freelancers the right to receive a written contract starting at the minimum of $800 within 120 days; timely payment (within 30 days, unless otherwise specified in a contract), and freedom from retaliation. Hiring parties who do not provide a written contract describing the work to be done by a freelancer, the amount to be paid and a timetable for its completion can get slapped with a $250 fine.

Salas told me that the freelancers entitled to protection under the bill constitute “a big universe” that encompasses construction and domestic workers, “individuals in the film industry” and adjunct professors.

D.C.A.’s OLPS states that the majority of freelance complainants who secured payment over a year’s time did not need to pursue their claims in court. If freelancers go to civil court for nonpayment and prevail, Salas said, they are entitled to “double damages” and the cost of legal fees. OLPS also provides help for freelancers seeking low-cost lawyers.

Omar Cordy, a 40-year-old Queens electrician who makes $25 to $40 an hour working freelance in the entertainment business, said OLPS staff helped him get paid for work he did as a lighting technician on a corporate event starting last July 7 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He said the event, which included a dinner, was produced by Sound Investment AV, a Chicago-based company with an office in New York. (Efforts to obtain comments from the company have been unavailing.)

“The gig was for a week and I was supposed to get paid the following week,” Cordy said in a telephone conversation. “The pay was $2,500 and I didn’t get anything” until Aug. 15 and only because OLPS stepped in, he recalled, as he spoke during a lunch break on his gig at the Minetta Theatre in Greenwich Village.

When Cordy contacted the company in Chicago, the response, he said, was not promising.

“They said, ‘Oh, we forgot.’ I told them, ‘Other people had gotten paid, so what’s going on? Why am I being singled out? I have credit-card bills to pay and a family in California to support.’ They were very rude. I told them, ‘We do things differently in New York.’”

The former musician eventually called a woman from the Freelancers Union who sent him a complaint form from OLPS to fill out.

“That,” Cordy said, “set progress in motion within four hours.”

The Freelancers Union, founded in 1995 by Sara Horowitz and headquartered in Downtown Brooklyn on Jay St., provides freelancers with health insurance, including dental, disability and liability. It’s free to join and currently has 375,000 members across the country, according to its new executive director, Caitlin Pearce.

Pearce said her union, which engages in advocacy campaigns, “championed” the Freelance Isn’t Free Act and had a hand in drafting the legislation while working with Councilmember Lander. She estimated that one-third of the total workforce these days is doing freelance or part-time work. She said that while some people think of it as a “niche” for creatives, “it’s happening all across America.”

Pearce recalled how the Freelancers Union petitioned its members to appear at a 2016 City Council hearing on the Freelance Isn’t Free Act “to show that this is a diverse workforce. We had dozens and dozens of freelancers, from reporters and models to domestics, and we were able to form a powerful coalition to get the bill passed unanimously,” she said.

Jess Weiss, an independent film producer (“The Ring Thing,” “The Honeymoon Phase”) who lives in East Harlem, told me she had heard of the Freelancers Union and worked with OLPS. She ultimately had to threaten litigation to get two people on her film crew and herself paid for a music video she put together last summer for a California company. She declined to name the company or the amount she was finally paid.

Film producer Jess Weiss recovered payments thanks to improved freelancer protections.

When she first complained about nonpayment, the company told her that she didn’t have any paperwork to back up her claim.

“That’s when I reached out to the Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” she said. “I called 311, and asked [OLPS], ‘How can you guys help?’ They did. They sent me a form and I filled it out, explaining my situation, and they asked me to send documentation. And I did that last summer, about a month and a half after the job was done.”

Weiss said she appreciated OLPS sending a letter to the company, noting it was “more official than something coming from me. It was like the government saying to them, ‘Look, we are aware you owe this amount, so please proceed with payment,’” she recalled. “They didn’t respond and [OLPS] sent me a list of lawyers who could be potentially helpful. I also reached out to crew members to do this — three of us hadn’t been paid in three months. This company was so weird.”

After four months of nonpayment, Weiss said she sent the company “one last e-mail, saying, ‘This is not okay and I’m going to proceed with legal action.’” Within five minutes, she said, the CEO of the company called. She reminded him that he was withholding payment, adding that she would be “recording the phone call.”

Her tough talk worked and payments finally arrived.

The experience has taught Weiss valuable lessons about navigating in a gig economy.

“We had e-mails showing our rate, but we didn’t have a signed contract,” she said. “I’ve learned not to trust people so much and to get it on paper.”

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