NWU VPs Testimony to the NY City Council

NWU Members

Mauricio Niebla

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today about my experience as a freelancer.
My name is Mauricio Niebla, I’m a writer, and as most writers, I am a freelancer. I have been a freelancer my entire professional life, for almost 30 years. I have been unpaid for jobs many times, but the most painful, dramatic and unfair treatment happened seven years ago.

At that time, I worked for a publisher called Inkwell Publishing Solutions in New York City. I had been working in that company for two years, creating many education programs. In every project that I worked with them I always had a contract, except for the last project. In 2009 we were working in the Texas elementary school reading program for the Houghton Harcourt Mifflin edition. In addition to me, there were more than 40 freelancers with different specialties: writers, translators, editors, graphic designers, programmers, etc., the largest number of workers I had ever seen in this company. Every two weeks, we had to present our invoices to the general editor, and our payment took about a month to arrive. After the first month of working on this project, some payment arrived–but only half. This was not so strange; it had happened before in this company, but in the end they always paid us. But two weeks later, the checks did not arrive at all; instead, the editor called a meeting to discuss the problem and explained that Houghton Harcourt Mifflin was behind on payments; he asked us to keep working and told us that as soon as they received the funds, they would be current with our payments. He also told us that the owners of the company were at our disposal if we wanted to communicate with them, but one of them was in Mexico, opening a subsidiary company in the city of Monterrey, and the other was incapacitated at home due to surgery after a leg injury.

Another two weeks passed, and once again, the payments did not arrive. Some people began to despair and stopped coming to work. Two weeks later, we stopped receiving messages from the owners. People began to try to talk to them, but they did not answer any of the emails or phone calls. I was one of them: I wrote saying I was confident that my payment would come, because in the time I had worked with them I was always paid (eventually). I asked them to have consideration for me, because I had just received the news that my wife was pregnant, and the lack of payment was especially critical at the time. Of course, I never heard back from them. More people started to leave, and others decided to go to Small Claims court. Along with others, I decided to stay and work, because we thought that if we left the job, we would not be paid at all. But many more continued to leave work until after a month, we were only 2 people, who finished the work and delivered the final product.

Only days after that, the company closed, the owners took the furniture and equipment out of the office and disappeared. There was no bankruptcy, no one was notified—they simply closed! We know that Houghton Harcourt Mifflin paid for the work we had done, but once the money entered the account of Inkwell, it vanished. Freelancers got nothing. The total loss of 40 workers exceeds $300,000. I was owed more than $20,000. The subsidiary in Mexico also closed, but, ironically, they did pay all their staff and did not leave any debt. This is because business owners in Mexico are liable, something that does not happen in this country.

After this experience I joined the National Writers Union and sadly realized that these cases happen more often than I had thought. We are working to prevent these cases, but without legislation to protect independent contractors, this is very difficult.


David Hill

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. My name is David Hill. I live in Windsor Terrace with my wife and two kids. I’m the vice president of the National Writers Union, and I’m a full-time freelance writer, but I wasn’t always.

I started freelancing about five years ago. After the birth of our first child, living expenses got a little out of control for us. In addition to all the normal costs of having babies, daycare costs were through the roof. I picked up some freelance writing work here and there to help make ends meet, while my wife and I both kept our full time jobs. After having a second child, our daycare costs were suddenly higher than our rent. I realized I needed to pick up a lot more freelance work to keep everything together. But the more freelance work I took on, the more imbalanced things got.

Freelance writing assignments, especially done for the internet, are lots of work for very little money, which makes it hard to scale up the kind of living you can make. Eventually it became clear that I would need to quit my day job, surrender my wonderful union health insurance plan and my defined benefit pension plan, and become a full time freelancer while also taking on child care duties rather than pay for full time daycare and try to freelance on the side.

This means I need to hustle up work constantly, and piece together a living through dozens of small invoices without any confidence about when the money will come, if it will come at all, and if I can expect to make more or less money the following month. It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s a necessary situation for my family given the costs of child care in New York City.

I’ve been stiffed before. Last year I agreed to write some ad copy for a business for $2,000. They gleefully accepted the copy I wrote, then for months told me they loved the work but that they weren’t sure if they still wanted to run the ad anymore.

Despite the fact that I should be paid whether or not they decide to run the ad, I accepted the fact that I won’t get paid for that project because I still do work for a company connected to this one. In freelancing, reputation is everything and I don’t want to lose business by making an issue out of $2000. But, as anyone who lives in New York City with kids knows, that $2000 is vital.

I’ve come to realize that nonpayment is just part of doing business as a freelancer when you have no contracts and are 100% at the whim of the client.

This bill is a first step towards changing that standard to one that respects the rights of the freelancer. We don’t have the power on our own to compel these clients to respect our rights, but you do. Please use that power. Thank you.