For a month and a half last year, I poured myself into an exciting and fulfilling project for a growing company full of passionate, hardworking, and talented individuals. It was an all-hands-on-deck operation with many moving parts, late nights, and learning, as everyone involved took their first stab at this particular sort of endeavor. Our efforts were ultimately rewarded with all the pieces of the puzzle somehow magically coming together. We patted one another on the backs, the company leadership gave proud, beaming speeches, and everyone took some much-earned time to decompress and recharge.
And then they ignored my invoices and stopped returning my emails.
My story is a relatively common and old one. People have been stiffing bills since they were written on clay tablets. Debt payment is covered extensively in the 1780 BC Hammurabi Law Code. According to Hammurabi, my delinquent former employer ought to be selling himself, his wife, or his children into slavery to make things right, but I'd still be happy with just a check.
As the "1099 Generation" becomes increasingly dependent on side hustles—primarily due to the lack of more traditional, stable employment options enjoyed by our parents—we're also increasingly at risk of those holding the purse strings fucking us over. As most Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings account, a delinquent payment can absolutely devastate a freelancer who may be working constantly and just getting by, unsure of when money owed to them will arrive. Even if small claims court or arbitration were to finally squeeze payment from the employer—a contract is a contract, after all—the processes are typically lengthy, and the ripple effects of not having enough to cover a phone bill or rent might already be irreparably damaging and life-changing.
New York City, recognizing the myriad vulnerabilities non-employee workers face in the shifting job landscape, passed a first-of-its-kind wage-theft protection measure referred to as the Freelance Isn't Free Act in October 2016. The bill requires written timetables for collecting payment and imposes penalty fees on those who drag their feet when compensating work done.
What should be cause for concern for freelancers (or anyone who subscribes to the idea of "honest work for honest pay") is that our new president, Donald Trump, has a litany of lawsuits—more than 3,500 in three decades—filed against him, primarily alleging failure to pay contractors for their labor.
Bragging in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article that he often unilaterally re-negotiates a contract after completed work, Donald Trump equates his slimy manipulation of the legal system and the imbalanced power dynamic between a multimillionaire and blue-collar workers with business acumen. Trump has repeatedly preyed on those he contracted (usually mom-and-pop shops or individuals) with the understanding that the prospect of having to hire a costly attorney to collect payment would invariably net them much less than what was originally promised on paper, thus forcing them to settle for an amount somewhere between the two figures if they want to get paid in a reasonable amount of time or at all.
Even for his inauguration day, Trump's ex-wife Marla Maples and daughter Tiffany attempted to convince a freelance hair-stylist to work for free "for the exposure." Anyone who's ever job hunted on Craigslist can attest to the frequency with which this particular dubious reward is offered.
While most of us will likely never engage in business with the Trumps or their companies, one should be wary that, just as Donald Trump's racist remarks emboldened the bigots of America to come out of the woodwork, so too might his unabashed business fuckery embolden America's capitalist swindlers.
Fighting the good fight out of principle is a luxury few in lower socioeconomic statuses can afford. Like most things in life, the legal avenues for remuneration invariably favor the rich, who have their base layers of Maslow's hierarchy squared away. Furthermore, they enjoy more of a financial runway to work with should litigation become protracted.
Economic policy–based think tank the Manhattan Institute has advocated for the adoption of "English rule" for attorney fees, wherein the losing party foots the bill for everyone. Though primarily concerned with curtailing frivolous tort litigation levied against small businesses, the group acknowledges that such a revision to the justice system would also "ensure plaintiffs of modest means but strong legal cases access to justice."
Such a seismic shift seems unlikely to happen soon, at least in whatever amount of time Trump has remaining in office, which is why it is so important for the generation of permanently partially employed young adults coming of age to be more forceful than ever when collecting their dues. A key component of resistance in the Trump era will be doggedly demanding your money as tenaciously as you will have to demand your inalienable human rights.
We are living in vulgar times. We can either weaponize that vulgarity for righteous purposes or allow it to be used to oppress us. It's time to dust off the unofficial motto of the freelancer, "fuck you, pay me." Lifted from Martin Scorscese's seminal classic Goodfellas, the phrase succinctly captures the inherent enmity lurking beneath the surface of all commerce.
"Fuck you, pay me" needn't be said out loud to be applied. Adding in late fees to contracts and invoices, meticulously enforcing due dates, or even leaving an unfavorable Glassdoor review are as much tools for collecting money in the present as they are your obligation to those workers who will hired at a later date.
Arriving at "fuck you, pay me" with a company is typically a point of no return and one to be avoided whenever possible. There's no reason to fully burn a bridge with a corporation or small business that is facing an unexpected financial hardship and has been forthcoming and communicative about the issue. Especially if this is the first time it's happened. But if you find yourself getting the runaround and cold shoulder as you come to collect, it's time to dispense with the pleasantries. Would they be granting you the same civility were your roles reversed?
Though I've still yet to be paid, I haven't quite reached "fuck you, pay me" status with the company I mentioned above. They're well past the archaic "net 30" payout timeline, but I'm not in dire financial straits. I'm willing to chalk the entirely unacceptable turnaround time up to the disorganization, incompetence, and poor communication of a few individuals. I'm still holding on to the positivity I feel about the majority of my experience there and ascribing no malice to the delay.
That said, after November's election, I am a bit less trusting of the inherent good that's supposedly inside my fellow man. Last fall, I was looking forward to a presidential term of human rights expansions and progress as a nation. Today, I'm keyed up to get into street fights with Nazis. I'm going to ride these waves of hopefulness for an amicable resolution for as far as they'll take me, but once we've reached "fuck you, pay me," I'll be ready to direct my itch and energy for scraps with white supremacists to whatever entity is standing between me and what's mine.