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posted: 11/5/2017 8:17 AM

What to do if you're a contract worker who's been stiffed

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  • What's a pet sitter to do when she hasn't been paid for her jobs?

    What's a pet sitter to do when she hasn't been paid for her jobs?
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Q: I have been working as a contractor for a pet-sitting business. I have not been paid in full for a couple of jobs. Each time I followed up, I heard one excuse after another about why I did not receive payment. After calling several times and going by the office I was finally paid most of what I was owed, but the company still owes me about $100. I am not sure what I can do as a part-time contract worker to receive payment. The company has also not been paying other contractors. Should I let it go or pursue it?

A: If you were a direct employee, you could file a complaint to recover unpaid wages with the federal Labor Department or your state's labor agency. However, for independent contractors like you, pursuing debts is generally a do-it-yourself prospect -- unless you work in New York City, where the Freelance Isn't Free Act took effect in May. The act establishes protections for freelance workers, including a process for filing complaints for nonpayment or retaliation with the city's Office of Labor Policy and Standards.

Outside New York City, you can consult a lawyer or file in small claims court, but you might well question whether chasing down 100 bucks is worth the money and time investment -- not to mention the risk of harming your relationship with your current or future clients. No one could blame you if you decided to quietly swallow your loss and move on.

But in addition to pragmatism and profit, let's talk about principle. The company you work for presumably doesn't let its clients ignore invoices. If you intend to keep working for the same client, repeatedly accepting less than your agreed-on rate weakens your market value and negotiating power. Finally, while $100 may not seem worth the effort for you alone, what happens when you multiply it by the number of other contractors getting stiffed? Organizing a collective effort with your fellow critter caretakers could make the process more cost-effective -- and make your complaints harder for your client to ignore.

Although I try to avoid plugging specific services or companies, I think your first and easiest step is to join Freelancers Union (freelancersunion.org), a nonprofit that supports and advocates for freelance workers nationwide and was a key player behind New York's Freelance Isn't Free Act. Freelancers Union offers a client nonpayment tool kit for members, including a checklist to help you gather proof of what you are owed, a guide to filing in small claims court, sample contract language, and an app to connect you with legal consultants. All of this helpful guidance is included with your free membership.

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PRO TIP: Freelancers Union also offers its members portable benefits such as health and dental plans; life, disability and liability insurance; and retirement saving accounts.

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Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing wpmagazine@washpost.com.