How to Get Paid for Your Work When Companies Don't Pay You

You can do many things if you feel wronged by a company that doesn't pay you. And feel free to share your experience here, as a forum for sharing grievances and learning what people did that was successful.
05/06/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2014

I started thinking about the problem of getting paid for your work when companies don't pay you when this happened to me. Often, when a company doesn't pay, you may feel powerless, especially when the amount is too small to merit a lawyer or even a small claims case. And often the problem gets magnified, and you feel worse about it, because the company won't tell you what's wrong or makes an excuse you feel is unjust.

For example, in my case, a small scholarly publisher hired me to edit a very badly written academic book with long, convoluted language and multiple citations from other researchers to say the same thing. The publisher knew my hourly rate and gave me a budget for the project, so I began by editing the first 15 pages in about 40 minutes. After which, the editor said he was he was sure the publisher would be pleased. Thus, I wrote for another hour, got another go ahead, and worked one more hour on the book, taking even more care to streamline the very dense, pedantic, repetitious writing. That's when things went south. After the editor called to tell me not write anymore and to send a bill for the hours I already put in, without explaining what was wrong, the publisher was elusive, unavailable and unwilling to return my calls, after which he sent a letter canceling an agreement to publish one of my books, with a notation for the editor to pay my bill. But soon afterwards, the editor sent an email stating that the publisher decided not to pay because the project wasn't completed. However, it wasn't because the editor asked me not to do anything more, after previously asking me to continue writing.

The amount wasn't much -- only about $400, but I felt the publisher's sudden decision to not to pay without any discussion or telling me what was wrong was unjust and unfair. Ironically, the book contract he canceled was about how bullies were sociopaths, and that's exactly how I felt he was acting -- deciding not to pay me because he could, even if it wasn't the right thing to do. And later I discovered this company was involved in numerous lawsuits, along with claims they were really a vanity publisher disguised as a scholarly press.

Due to this refusal to pay, after initially feeling powerless against a company in another state, I started thinking about what I could do and how many other individuals might be in a similar situation after putting in hours, days or more on a project, only to be stiffed for no good reason, even though they had done the work. For example, one writer friend described working 40 hours a week for three months with repeated assurances of being paid at the end of the project. But then the promised check for about $20,000 didn't come, and the company officials were elusive when she tried to contact them. Another man hired as a consultant, and after being paid an initial retainer, he agreed to bill the company. But after the company hired him for several more hours, it didn't pay, claiming that his advice didn't help their sales, though he gave no guarantees.

These no-pay examples are just the tip of the iceberg, since many people encounter a similar situation in the workplace, and a large percentage of them make up the vast number of small claims cases filed each year in courts in every jurisdiction. Commonly, these courts are a division of a municipal or superior court, and fees are typically low -- for instance only $30 for a claim under $1500 in California.

However, while going to small claims court -- or the threat of filing -- can sometimes get a company to pay to avoid the time and expense of going to court, pursuing a claim can be a long, tedious process and not worth the effort if the unpaid amount is low.

So what are some alternatives, when a company isn't open to resolving the dispute? While these alternatives can often lead to your getting paid, they also provide a way to share your experience to warn others about possible problems in dealing with that company. Informing others through writing emails, blogging or talking can also help you feel better about what happened, and you may feel some satisfaction from getting justice. And sometimes, after discovering people writing and talking about what it did wrong, a company can be embarrassed by the publicity to do the right thing.

Here are some things you can do aside from going to court.

1) Report your bad experiences on one of the websites which feature complaints for that industry. For example, in the writing field, members of Authors of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) have access to a private list of publishers that haven't paid members, and another site featuring warnings about publishers is Preditors and Editors.

2) If you have followers on social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, you can share information about problem companies there, and others may pass on this information on. Then, the company's desire to end any bad publicity by paying what they owe is likely to outweigh any legal action against someone with a valid complaint, since this might result in more bad publicity.

3) Tell the company that you are seriously considering legal action, and show you have researched the court procedures and the penalties they may experience. Plus, a court case becomes a public record, which they might want to avoid as another mark on their reputation.

4) If enough people stiffed by a company learn about it through your efforts, a protest in front of company headquarters or a virtual protest through the social media site can work, too.

In short, you can do many things if you feel wronged by a company that doesn't pay you. And feel free to share your experience here, as a forum for sharing grievances and learning what people did that was successful.